Two weeks ago, temperatures bottomed out at 15°F and a winter storm buried gardens, yards and colorful-leafed trees under almost 10 inches of snow. Now, sun and a week of daytime highs around 74°F have awakened chipmunks, spurred American robins to sing and enticed honey bees from their hives. The bees found our last asters of the season. In a sunny location, and protected by an overhanging arbor vitae hedge on the north side, the pastel blossoms continue to open despite the early snow and frigid cold. What a gift — a sweet treat for the honey bees and an unexpected return to autumn beauty for us.
It’s easy to focus on the “can’t miss” colors of autumn’s oaks and maples. Orange and red dominate October’s landscape. But, look more closely: Yellow’s quiet beauty slowly swells from a few bright pockets of heart-shaped basswood leaves, to entire bluff-sides wrapped in lemon, butter and gold of birch, cottonwood, maple and hickory. Woods that were deeply shadowed and cool green just a few days ago, now glow on a sunny afternoon. The air smells good — earth, ripe seeds and the slightly tangy scent of aging leaves — all part of autumn’s final act before winter spreads its monochrome blanket.
Autumn was our dad’s favorite season. This was his last one. He died three weeks ago, when a hint of color tinged the maples and the asters were beginning to bloom. The day before he died, I told him about the chipmunks and squirrels scrambling to stash acorns and walnuts; the zigzag goldenrod glowing in the woods, and bumblebees nectaring in asters along a woodland trail. I read to him essays about autumn by Minnesota naturalist Sigurd Olson whose books he loved.
When I walked an autumn-painted path along the Mississippi River last week, I thought about Dad; how he loved the fiery maples and muted red oaks, the earthy smell of leaves, and the songs and calls of birds. I remembered some of the ways that we shared nature together.
Dad taught us about the natural world a little differently from Mom’s gardening and nature lessons. He taught us to fish on the lakes surrounding Spooner, Wisconsin. We used children’s hand-held red droplines with colorful bobbers that first year. (I keep mine in my tackle box for the memories.) We baited our own hooks, watched our bobbers for nibbles, and learned to gently release the hook from bluegills, pumpkinseeds and other panfish. It wasn’t all fishing, however. We also took side trips into quiet bays where turtles lined up on logs to sun, loons swam with their chicks riding piggyback, and mats of waterlilies floated with their exotic-looking flowers and beautiful leaves. We relaxed in the warm morning sun and watched the blue damselflies that rested on the boat. It was peaceful.
As youngsters, we spent many late-autumn weekend evenings outside. In the 1960s, beautiful vase-shaped American elms towered over our streets like cathedral arches. The whole neighborhood would be outside to rake their yards and burn leaves; each household tended a small fire on their cement apron bordering the alley. We kids ran with friends while our dads tended the burning leaf piles. We stopped and talked at each fire. Stories were told and we looked at the brighter stars and planets as we warmed up by the fire. The scent of burning leaves was aromatic in the brisk air filled with our laughter and chatter.
In later years, Mom and Dad built a cabin on the Snake River in East Central Minnesota. They loved being there during every season of the year. I spent many days with them as a young adult and am grateful to remember so many experiences. Dad loved to stand on the front deck at dusk. Evening songs of wood thrushes, veerys, robins and other birds harmonized with the burbling river running over rocks. He became a birder of sorts. He already could identify many species of ducks and geese. Now he learned to recognize different grosbeaks, thrushes, woodpeckers and warblers. An eagle pair nested nearby and Dad watched the nest year round.
He delighted in the creatures that lived around the cabin; a white-tailed doe and her twin fawns, black bear, a red fox family, buffleheads, mergansers and wood ducks, mink, and snow-white ermine in winter. One autumn evening, an otter popped up onto a boulder with clams. We watched it open the shells, eat its dinner and frolic in the river.
Summer evenings sparkled with fireflies blinking over the marshes, fields and roadsides. Barred owls were regular nighttime visitors as were tiny flying squirrels. Frogs — leopard, green, wood and others — serenaded the night, adding their voices to the songs of nocturnal insects and the river.
Dad lost his vision to glaucoma four years ago. Thanks to Amazon Echo, he continued to read (another passion) by listening to audible books. But there wasn’t a way to replace the loss of seeing nature. He rarely complained about his blindness. Sometimes, I close my eyes and try to imagine his loss and cannot. We kids described all that we saw in nature, and we read to him often. At least he was able to be outside during the summer. He loved the sun’s warmth, the mild breeze, the rustle of leaves, and that we could be with him after the long months of COVID separation.
The week that Dad died was beautiful; golden September sunlight, warm days, mild nights, bumble bees and hummingbirds still busy in the wildflowers and crickets chirping in the garden. How he wished to be sitting in the sun on the cabin’s front deck by the river. As he peacefully slipped away, I hope his thoughts were of blue sky, warm sun, the scent of colorful autumn leaves and the gentle music of the river that he loved so much.
The northern or common walkingstick insect is a master of mimicry. Slender, green or brown, nocturnal and timid, it looks like a twig or branchlet. I’ve only spotted a few at our cabin in Central Minnesota over several years’ time. They were brown — except for this one, which was pearly green and sitting on the side of our cabin.
Since they are wingless, slow-moving and don’t bite, northern walkingsticks need some way to elude their predators — mainly songbirds and parasitic insects. They are extraordinary mimics and blend in perfectly with tree branchlets and twigs. Unless you spot them crawling, or they roost on a building or another object, it’s very difficult to see them. Males are brown and about three inches long. Females are greenish brown and closer to four inches in length.
So what do walkingsticks do? They are primarily nocturnal and rest during the day extending their front legs forward next to their antennae, which makes them appear more sticklike. At night they eat! The larval stages eat leaves of shrubs that are close to the ground, especially hazel, rose, blueberry and serviceberry. Adults feed in the tops of trees and appear to favor oaks, basswood, black locust and black cherry. When eating, they often sway like the leaves and branches around them, which provides greater camophlage.
Northern walkingsticks mate in the afternoon and evening from late summer to mid-autumn. The female lays her eggs from high up in the trees. The eggs just drop to the ground to overwinter in the leaves. In the south, the eggs hatch the following spring. In the northern states and provinces, there’s a two-year cycle in which the eggs don’t hatch until the second spring. So, in Minnesota, the odd-numbered years produce many young and the even-numbered years produce fewer insects. The newly hatched larvae, or nymphs, climb up into shrubs where they molt several times before reaching adulthood. They are miniatures of their parents, but are green like new spring leaves.
We have just one species of walkingstick in Minnesota — it lives in the eastern United States and the southern portions of adjacent Canadian provinces. Most of the world’s 3000 stick insects live in the tropics.
The farm road near our cabin is bright, hot and breezy on high-summer afternoons. Musical chirps, metallic clicks and shrill whines of crickets, grasshoppers and cicadas wash over the fields. At mid-August, bird song is minimal — a few call, but do not sing. Most vocal are American goldfinches, with their lilting calls and flight. There are eastern bluebirds and an eastern kingbird. A broad-winged hawk circles a few times whistling its high, quavering note.
The dairy farmer who owns these fields, borders them with several feet of perennials — common milkweed, red clover, rabbit-foot clover, monarda, native sunflowers, blue vervain and goldenrod. Not only do these swaths of plants help stop runoff and pollution into the nearby Snake River, they also support bees, butterflies and other pollinators. Today, painted ladies, monarchs, eastern-tailed blues, yellow sulfurs, cabbage whites and mourning cloaks zip quickly through the hot, sunny air. Painted ladies dominate the aerial dance. Dozens swoop and swirl around us in the roadside flowers, and fly up from the wet, sandy road where they drink water and minerals.
The road winds into groves of hardwoods along the river. Red and white oak, basswood, willow and silver maple shade the road and lower the air temperature by several degrees. Now goldfinches are accompanied by the nasal “yank-yank” call of white-breasted nuthatches, scrappy blue jays and the gurgling calls of tiny black-capped chickadees. The woods are much cooler, still lush and green with ferns, river grapes, Canada ginger, false Solomon’s seal, and the ripening green-blue berries of sarsaparilla. Mushrooms pop up in shady, damp areas and I spot russulas, white puffballs, bracket fungi and others whose identity I don’t know.
The week’s thunderstorms raised the river more than a foot. Water burbles and tumbles over rocks and riffles. Ospreys, eagles and belted kingfishers frequently fish these waters. I hear the kingfisher’s rattle offset by the more plaintive calls of the larger birds of prey.
We leave the woods and river once again and return to the hot August sun and breeze. I close my eyes and stand quietly. The wind ripples fields of hay, soybeans and field corn. It smells so good — ripe grain and grass, damp earth and sweet clover. I memorize the scents, sounds and heat of high summer. I will hold them close when the inevitable winter returns.
Like miniature floating tapestries — stippled, spotted and striped — they decorate gardens, yards and roadsides. Butterflies are plentiful this summer. Alongside the bumblebees, they pollinate many flower species and aid with seed production. But honestly, I love them more for their color, grace and elusiveness; for the joy they evoke in the eyes of children and the hearts of people of all ages. I delight in the first and last of every season — often a mourning cloak or red admiral in late April and a tortoise shell or red admiral in October.
Here are a few of the butterflies I’ve seen recently:
What do you associate with the words “winged beauties”? Many would answer birds and butterflies — and I’d add damselflies and dragonflies, too. On a sunny, warm morning, a pair of inky black wings flutter near the Snake River. At first I think it’s a butterfly, but a closer look reveals the electric-blue-green body of a male ebony jewelwing damselfly; he flashes cool and iridescent in the morning sun.
A member of the broad-winged damselflies, ebony jewelwings fly more like a butterfly than like their dragonfly relatives. Their wings are 1-to-1½ inches long and their body length is up to 2¼ inches. The male’s colorful abdomen — green, teal, blue, even a hint of purple — shimmers in the sunlight. A female ebony jewelwing is similar in appearance, but not as showy as a male. Her body is brown with little bits of blue or green. Her wings are more transparent black and display a distinct white spot near each tip. (See a female at Wisconsin Odonata Survey.)
In the eastern United States and southeastern Canada, look for ebony jewelwings perched along shady banks of shallow streams and slow-moving rivers from late May until September. Adults live for about 20 days. A mating pair will often fly attached in the heart-shaped “wheel formation” and remain connected for several hours. Females deposit eggs inside of submerged water plant stems in quiet sections of streams or rivers. The larvae or naiads live in the water for about a year and eat other aquatic larvae, such as mosquitos and mayflies. Adults eat most soft-bodied insects, for example small moths, mosquitos, mayflies, gnats, flying ants and termites.
Even though jewelwings are voracious predators, they serve as supper to other creatures — turtles, frogs, fish, bats and birds, such as red-winged blackbirds, blue jays, flycatchers, purple martins and kingfishers.
How does one distinguish between a damselfly and a dragonfly? A few simple differences make it easy to tell them apart. Generally, damsels hold their wings folded vertically above their body, while dragons spread them horizontally when resting. Damselfly abdomens are more slender than the stout dragonflies’. Damselfly eyes are set far apart on the sides of the head, but dragonfly eyes wrap around and touch on top of the head.
Damselflies and dragonflies belong to the order Odonata, which means “toothed ones.” Many come in beautiful, iridescent color combinations. Fossil records indicate that Protodonata, the ancient ancestors of both dragons and damsels, arose about 325 million years ago. The first Odonata fossils are dated at a little older than 250 million years, which means they’ve inhabited Earth’s skies since before dinosaurs existed. I love to watch and think about these ancient, graceful creatures that add so much beauty to our woods and gardens.
It’s late spring with the entire summer ahead of us. Nature’s greens are deep and full. Tiger swallowtails (Papilio glaucous) are on the wing now, the first of two times during the Minnesota summer. The first flight is typically in May-June and the second in July-August. The offspring of the second flight overwinter in their chrysalides.
I watch a bright yellow male patrolling his territory, repeating the same route through the large silver maples across the alleyway, over our apple tree and under my neighbor’s birch tree. He is quick to give chase to other males that trespass.
On this sunny, breezy morning, a black form female nectars in a sea of blue nepeta in our front garden. Her iridescent blue-on-black wings flutter repeatedly from one end of the garden to the other. She is full of energy and free of wing tatters and tears.
Most eastern tiger swallowtails in Minnesota are yellow with black stripes. However, the female is dimorphic, or appears in two forms: the familiar black-striped yellow and a rarer black form washed with shimmering blue across its hind wings. Faint black stripes are often visible on the dark female.
Just a tiny percentage of females appear in the black form, especially this far north, but are common in the southern United States. Why? Scientists think that the black form is a mimic of the pipevine swallowtail, which tastes horrible because the caterpillars feed solely on pipevine plants. (Think of monarchs and viceroys, another example of mimicry. Birds hate the taste of monarchs because they eat milkweed. Viceroys closely resemble monarchs, so birds often avoid them.) Pipevine swallowtails occasionally come as far north as Minnesota.
Interested in attracting eastern tiger swallowtails to your yard or garden? Favorite caterpillar foods include: chokecherry, ash, poplar, maple, apple and mountain ash. Adults nectar on many flower species including phlox, milkweed, Joe-Pye weed, blazing star, bee balm/bergamot and red clover.
Dusk on the flower
Of the white peony,
That embraces the moon.
As a youngster, I thought violets should be just one color: the shade of Crayola violet in my crayon box. In fact, violet flowers aren’t always violet! Many are blue, shades of purple, white and even yellow. The native common violet, or wooly blue violet, grows in almost every Minnesota county and in most of the eastern United States and Canada. It’s what many of us picture when we think “violet” (excluding African violets, which are a different plant family altogether).
Violets are a sure sign of spring in Minnesota and bloom from April to June. You’ll often find them in woodlands, thickets, gardens, lawns, along roadsides and even growing in sidewalk cracks. Individual species of violets can be tricky to identify and botanists disagree on how to classify them. Many of the backyard and roadside violets are common violets (Viola sororia), which may be blue, purple or white. The downy yellow violet (Viola pubescens) is also common in most Minnesota counties. It differs from many violets in that the flower stem arises from the leaf axil instead of growing separately from the corm.
A typical native violet has heart-shaped or circular leaves with rounded teeth. In most species, the flower stem grows directly from the corm, which is similar to a bulb. Each leafless stem holds a single five-petaled flower. The purple-veined area on the lower petal is a nectar guide for pollinators. Bees see ultraviolet light and scientists think that the enhanced pattern visible to their eyes helps lead them to the nectar. In early May, typical pollinators are mason bees, tiny sweat bees and skipper butterflies. But, because the early spring weather can be cold and pollinators may be inactive, violets produce a second type of flower called a cleistogamous flower that doesn’t open. It self-pollinates and forms a seed capsule that ripens, bursts and ejects small brown seeds away from the plant. These flowers don’t form until after the trees leaf out. Look for them underneath violet plants later in the summer.
The violet plant is an important host for the caterpillars of many species of fritillary butterflies. Just as monarch larvae feed solely on milkweed plants, most fritillary caterpillars feed only on violets. Humans can eat violet blossoms, but not the rest of the plant, which is toxic. The blossoms provide vitamins A and C. In earlier times, they were used to make a simple, sweet jelly that’s also beautiful. To learn how to make violet jelly, and about other ways the flowers were used, visit PBS Wisconsin’s “The Wisconsin Gardener” for a brief, interesting interview.
Violets sometimes form patches, especially in a garden or lawn. They are a good ground cover in shady places where grass does’t grow well. If you have too many growing for your liking, they are easy to remove. Just make sure that you pull out the entire root — and please consider leaving a few for early pollinators and for fritillary caterpillars to eat!