Gold in the Spring Peeper Meadow

By Holly Einess

At the eastern edge of the Arboretum is the Spring Peeper Meadow, so-named for the little frogs that once inhabited this area. Efforts have been under way since 1997 to restore the meadow, long drained and used for agriculture, to its original wetland state. My walk today reveals a diverse and thriving wetland community; clearly the efforts are paying off!

Spring Peeper MeadowSpring Peeper Meadow

I’m struck by how much gold there is—whole swathes of Canada goldenrod, many with round galls on their stems caused by invading insect larvae. Stiff goldenrod is also present, distinguished from other goldenrods by its round fleshy leaves. I see two other yellow-flowered members of the aster family—sneezeweed (whose leaves, when dried, were once used as snuff) and goat’s beard. Joe-pye weed, with its multitude of tiny pink flowers, offers a contrast to all the yellow.


Goldfinches are singing and calling, some gathering together high in a dead tree, others flitting about in the prairie dock (yet another aster!). Two green herons fly overhead, and a cardinal adds a flash of red to the scene.


As I start down the boardwalk I see that the arrowhead is in bloom. The tubers of this aquatic plant provide food for many animals, including muskrats, geese, ducks and, yes, people. I greet a family as they enjoy a picnic lunch on one of the many boardwalk benches.


At the end of the boardwalk is a stand of sumac, starting to show its brilliant fall reds. Gray-headed coneflower, lead plant, and purple prairie clover have all lost their blooms and are going to seed; further signs that summer will soon be drawing to a close. As I’m about to leave the Spring Peeper Meadow, two eastern tiger swallowtails frolic past and a monarch alights nearby, bookending my visit with these final glimpses of yellow and gold.

Holly Einess is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.

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Nature of Light

Purple coneflowers are in radiant glory curbside near the visitor building, flanked by lavender blooms of catmint alive with bees.

DSC_0077 We Are Light by Ashley DullOil Painting

Inside, I check the Nature Notes board for updates. Sunlight spilling from a large oil painting in the hallway by Ashley Dull draws me in. The Incredible Being of Light showcases works by four artists in oil, mosaic and glass. These stunning works will be in the Reedy Gallery through Sept. 4.

DSC_0114 prairie dock flowerPrairie Dock

Outside, sunlight spills through the woodlands, too, and the prairie is bathed in it, glowing golden with sunflowers, cup plants, prairie dock, black-eyed Susans, goldenrod and rosinweed. Crickets and grasshoppers chirp a wavering melody as I stroll.

DSC_0323 Indian grass flower croppedIndian Grass

Prairie dropseed stems arch above their grassy clumps in airy seed tops that glint in sunlight. Indian grass has smooth bronze-colored seeds opening to reveal yellow stamen dangling and feathery white styles.

In the prairie garden, a female monarch nectars on her favorite -rough blazing star,Liatris aspera. Despite fewer liatris than in previous years, I see at least a dozen monarchs over the prairie.

Other blooms include rattlesnake master, great Indian plantain, flowering spurge, grey coneflower, wild quinine, American vetch, and stiff goldenrod.

DSC_0240 new England asterNew England aster

I find my first aster of the season, a deep purple New England aster. Nearby, an orange sulphur butterfly is camouflaged as it sips on golden cup plant blossoms. It flits away and leads my eyes to another aster: the miniature daisy-like flowers of false aster.

DSC_0254 bottle gentian croppedBottle Gentian

A blue glow between the grasses catches my eye. Bottle gentian in full bloom! Blue vervain is sporting its last blooms, and song sparrows serenade from cattails bursting in seed.

A bumblebee and a dark female eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly nectar in tandem on a thistle flower and then switch spots! A monarch hovers patiently above when suddenly a female ruby-throated hummingbird darts in, wings buzzing, to take a turn.

DSC_0353 Grit PickersGrit Pickers

In the shady forest, chickadees call furtively, blue jays warn, and a gray catbird meows. Pagoda dogwoods have just a few leaves starting to tinge claret. Just outside the woodland wildflower garden, I stop to hear the Grit Pickers trio of banjo, guitar and fiddle entertaining a crowd with a lively polka in the shade of crabapple trees.

The magnificent American elm near the Ornamental Grass Collection is starting to fade pale green on its southern side, where the sunlight hits it most, in just another facet of light.

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


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Dancing Grasses

By Sydney Chandler

Most people don’t likely jump at the suggestion to explore a garden of grass. But visitors to the Oriental Grasses have the special opportunity to meet a variety of quirky characters. The garden has a pulse, and a sunny evening with a slight breeze seem to bring out personalities in each species.

The Feather Reed Grass shows off in the evening sun with its vibrant golden color and dancing movements. This thin grass is topped with tufts of seeds nearly ready to depart on their own adventures.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA‘Avalanche’ Feather Reed Grass

Taller and greener across the garden is the Giant Miscanthus. Its dramatic height gives visitors the ants-eye view in grass exploration. These broader leaves create a dense mass of bright green that towers over seven feet upward. Gazing skyward to look at grass is a very different perspective when exploring.


In another quadrant of the garden, three varieties of the Japanese Silver Grass and the purple Switch Grass show off their fashion-forward patterns and colors. Among the four grasses, they represent polka dots, stripes, vibrant color combinations, and fur-like textures.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA‘Strictus’ Japanese Silver Grass

It’s easy to anthropomorphize these varieties: they dance in the breeze, they proudly shine in the evening sun, and they reach energetically outward and upward. Meeting these grasses face-to-face is a great way to notice their intricate details, observe similarities and differences, and appreciate the species represented in the garden.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA‘Cheyenne Sky’ Switch Grass

Sydney Chandler is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.

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Prairie: Garden of the Senses!

By Greg Lecker

Exploring an August Prairie is an experience for all the senses.  Sounds abound – birds, but mostly cicadas.  Cicadas can be surprisingly loud, especially at close range.  Their calling is temperature dependent – signifying temperatures in the 80’s and above.  They can be found July through September wherever deciduous trees are found – though they do not harm trees or other plants.  But again, though one may not find them visually, one cannot miss them audibly!  That high pitched power line whine that induces apprehension (in me at least, at times) – that is the cicada’s calling card.  Born from eggs laid in tree bark, cicadas hatch (as nymphs) and crawl down the bark to nurse from tree roots for four to five years!

Having grown up, they climb back up the tree, transform into winged insects and begin mating – or at least calling for a mate.  I’m always taken by stories connecting nature to mythology; and I’ve found one that applies to cicadas.  The Titan goddess Eos falls in love with a beautiful prince, and grants him immortality, but forgetfully not youth.  (Details; details.)  His body shrivels to a corpse-like shell of his former self; yet he continues calling forth with the power of the young.   I don’t find them unattractive, though in the only form I’ve seen them – a shed skin or a dead cicada on the sidewalk – they’re not fully whole.  Annual (or dogday) cicadas are 1-1/2” long, stout with a green or brown body, marked with black accents.  They hold their wings tent-like over their body.  Annual” because these cicadas can be found annually; compared with the type that appear once every thirteen to seventeen years!

Prairie Dock and Cup PlantComposite Portrait:  Prairie Dock and Cup Plant

Sight overwhelms first:  lush height and width, riotous yellow accent amidst a sea, of, yes, waves of greens.  In the prairie, the flower plant family most dominant in terms of variety and beauty is the Composite or Aster Family – and they are blooming now.  The term “composite” describes the flower heads:  clusters of many small flowers (florets). The florets may be of two different types — disk and ray florets. The disk florets, the smallest and most numerous, are located in the central portion of a typical flower head and form the yellow center of a daisy or the brown center of a black-eyed Susan.  The “petals” surrounding the central disk are the ray florets. Most composites have both disk and ray florets, while some have only one or the other.

Providing food, water, and cover, Cup Plant is species that many native plant gardeners select to attract birds.  Cup Plant bears lance-shaped leaves opposite pairs that clasp around the stem forming a pocket for water collection.  The scientific name of Cup Plant, perfoliatum, means “through the leaf,” referring to the stem that appears to pierce the leaves.  These leaf cups catch and store rainwater, often for many days.

Cup PlantCup Plant

That tall plant in the prairie – it’s most likely Prairie dock.  Like compass plant, its flowers are arranged opposite on a stem that stretches to thirteen feet.  The flowers may point north and south – though I wouldn’t rely on this for navigation.   Its basal leaves are very large, 1 foot or more in length, thick, rough, resinous, and heart- or spade-shaped. Like the compass plant, the leaves of the prairie dock stand erect presenting only their thin edges to the intense mid-day sun, thus reducing transpiration.  The foliage grows 24”-36” tall.  In August, smooth tall stalks arise from the cluster of leaves. At the top of these tall stalks, about six bright yellow sunflower-like heads open from smooth, round buds, and last for a month or longer.  Very long-lived, individual plants are known to flourish for decades.

Prairie DockPrairie Dock

Come explore the prairie – bring bug spray and a change of footwear.  You won’t get “cold feet” but you may leave with wet feet from the damp mown grass and dripping foliage!

Greg Lecker is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.

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A Step Back in Time

By Holly Einess

The morning is sunny and mild, and I’m eager to explore the Spring Peeper Trail. I start out on the Ridge Trail and right away spot a lovely little woodland plant I’ve not seen before. Subsequent research reveals it to be helleborine, a non-native orchid that’s considered invasive in both Wisconsin and Michigan. Too bad!


Before emerging onto the marsh I hear an eastern wood-pewee calling “pee-ah-weee”; I take a moment to look around the woods and appreciate how alive it feels, with leaves rustling in the breeze and spider-silk threads glinting in the sunlight. Once out on the sunny boardwalk I notice a bee bonanza on the swamp milkweed, and farther on see that the jewelweed (also called touch-me-not for its seedpods that, when ripe, burst at the lightest touch) is just beginning to bloom.


The sound of running water accompanies me briefly as I veer off the Green Heron Trail onto the Spring Peeper Trail. The cattails are tall and their brown flower spikes plump; water horsetail ends a lacy look among all the other water-loving plants. Before long I’m in the woods again and am delighted to find a cluster of Indian pipe. White due to lack of chlorophyll, it gets its nutrition from dead or decaying plant material and its bell-like flower turns upright only after pollination.

indian pipeIndian pipe

The trail soon opens up into a habitat entirely distinct from the marsh and forest. Here, the wildflowers are abundant–black-eyed Susan, gray-headed and purple coneflower, bee balm, fleabane, red clover, heal-all,and Queen Anne’s lace.

Queen Anne's laceQueen Anne’s lace

Tree and barn swallows chatter noisily as they swoop and dive, a song sparrow calls in the distance, and dragonflies alight on the grasses. As I look around, the only sign of human presence is the trail, reminiscent of a prairie road, and I feel as though I’ve stepped back in time.

Spring Peeper Trail 1Spring Peeper Trail

As I come to the intersection of the Ridge Trail I realize I’ve covered less than half of the Spring Peeper Trail. Out of time for today, I know I’ll be back to explore the rest soon.

Holly Einess is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.

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Prairie Mosaic

By Mary Beth Pottratz

Puffs of cumulus clouds dot a deep blue sky. The light breeze wisps away any mosquitoes. I had waited until afternoon for plants to dry out, and even the dew point and temperature make for pleasant weather.

The prairie is a mosaic of color: golden sunflowers, purple coneflowers, fuzzy-soft lavender lead plants, yellow mullein, white culver’s root, silver prairie sage, tan and brick-red grasses, and black pods of white wild indigo, all against a lush green backdrop.

DSC_0234 bee balmBee Balm

The delicious scent of bee balm leads me to its pale lavender blooms. Its leaves and flowers make a delicious tea. Dwarf bush honeysuckle is already starting to tinge red in places. Drooping purple flowers of American vetch stand above neatly packed leaves tipped with curly tendrils. Swamp milkweed and Joe pye weed are still flowering.

DSC_0150 purple coneflower croppedPurple Coneflowers

Dozens of flowers are in bloom, including purple coneflowers, rattlesnake master, rosinweed, grey-headed coneflower, wild quinine, smooth ox eye, liatris, and white spikes of Culver’s root. The last of the white wild indigo and white and purple prairie clovers are still in bloom.

DSC_0228 cup plant with bee or flyCup Plant

A bee – or maybe a bee mimic – nectars on the disk flowers of a cup plant. His hind legs are coated with pollen.

Fleabane, pointed and showy tick trefoil, anise hyssop, royal catch fly, mullein, allium, and clovers are in full flower. A brown rabbit sits complacently on the grass prairie trail, munching on white clover.

DSC_0302 viceroyViceroy

A pair of viceroy butterflies play tag in the cup plants. Often mistaken for a monarch, the viceroy sports a telltale black line parallel to the edge of its hind wing.

Goldenrods haven’t set their buds yet, but are already three and four feet tall. Several have round or bush galls on them, making the plant a landlord to an insect larva such as a midge fly.

DSC_0034 big bluestem flowersBig Bluestem

Big bluestem’s reddish turkey-foot seedheads have tiny yellow florets dangling from its seeds.  Little bluestem’s tips are swelling, but there is no sign of its seedhead yet. Prairie dropseed has airy panicles of seeds, and many sedges are sporting brown nutlets.

Turkey families browse around the grounds along Three Mile Drive, and a pair of geese with four goslings munch on clover.

Sumac berries, known for their high vitamin C content, are ripe for jam or drying for tea. Wild cucumber vines climb innocuously up spruce trees, although not yet in bloom.

DSC_0229 great Indian plantainGreat Indian Plantain

Tall spires of great Indian plantain stand above the prairie, with palmate leaves and a reddish stem. And as I force myself to head back home, a double-crested cormorant flaps westward, low to the ground.

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

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Prairie Prepares to Bloom

By Greg Lecker

Like many recent days, clouds are spectacular this morning.  What appear to be heavily water-laden clouds partially obscure the morning rising sun.  Rim light adds silver borders to the sky patterns. We could use some rain – but no more storms!

Sky ShowSky Show

The woodland is very dark.  Here and there, fairy candles of black cohosh lighten the woodland.  Another item that brings a bit of light is the removal of some trees – likely hemlocks, as evidenced by fairly new stumps.

Tall plant stalks with large palmately divided (like a hand) leaves end in white flower clusters.   Glade mallow stands taller than me, with clean leaves that have not yet been tasted by skeletonizing insects.

Glade MallowGlade Mallow

Flies are bugging me.  I move to the open roadway and head towards the prairie.  Speaking of insects, I’m attracted to the color of a Japanese beetle on the flower spike of giant hyssop.  Next to it, seed heads of wild indigo mimic the shape of the beetle’s body.

Indigo Hyssop and Japanese BeetleWild Indigo, Giant Hyssop and Japanese Beetle

Our native plants did not evolve with this beetle that was introduced early last century.  Even so, the native plants seem to withstand its damage more than our garden flowers.

Now is the time to visit the prairie.  From July through September, sequential waves of flowers add color to the sea of grasses.  The yellow composite flowers – cup plant, for one – are just starting to bloom.  I will examine them further on a future visit.  Presently, I’m drawn to the colorful arcing spikes of lead plant.

Lead PlantLead Plant

Deeply rooted lead plant shows no sign of withering in the heat.  Flower are purple-violet with accents of orange.

A plant with flowers that are even showier is common milkweed.  Flowers appear a candy or bubble-gum pink,

Common Milkweed

Common Milkweed

The fragrant, sticky globes of starry, rose-purple flowers are fragrant and attract the adult butterflies.  If the breeze is right or one is nearby, their fragrance is noticeable.  I see no Monarch butterflies this early in the day.  Look for their colorful fluttering mid-day into the afternoon.Monarch butterfly caterpillars consume the plant sap without ill effects, but then become toxic to birds and other animals.  Thus the plant passes to the butterfly its defense mechanism.The seed pods open to distribute many seeds to the wind.   Orioles and some other birds use the fibers from the plants dried stringy stems in making nests.   But there’s plenty of time to enjoy summer before seed pods are the focus of our natural explorations!

Greg Lecker is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.


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