Early Spring Native Flowers: Bloodroot

Native bloodroot flowers (Sanguinea canadensis) emerge with a single leaf tightly wrapped around each of them. (Notice the early native bee near the top of the photo!)

One of Minnesota’s earliest native wildflowers is bloodroot, (Sanguinea canadensis). Given its name, you might expect a scarlet or crimson flower. In fact, it blooms ice-white with a sun-gold center, though some emerge light pink. They look out of place, so stark and fresh among the remains of last year’s woodland growth and garden detritus. Its name refers to the toxic red-orange sap in the rhizome or root.

Each bloom emerges wrapped in a single curling leaf like a little blanket. The leaf remains curled until the blossom withers and then unfurls into a rounded leaf with a varying number of lobes. The leaves range in color from light green to blue-green depending on the plant’s age and condition. In its natural setting, bloodroot often grows along woodland edges, which provide sun in early spring and shade when the trees leaf out. In my garden, it grows along the edge of an arbor vitae hedge and under an ash tree. With shade and regular watering, bloodroot creates a pretty ground cover that lasts all summer under deciduous trees. If they aren’t watered during summer’s hot, dry spells, bloodroot leaves just go dormant until the following spring.

Sometimes the flowers have a pink coloration when they open.

Native bees, honey bees and beetles pollinate bloodroot, which also can self-pollinate. Fertilized flowers form elongated capsules that enclose spherical seeds colored black, red, or brown. Here’s what’s special about bloodroot seeds: Each produces an elaiosome, an attachment containing lipids, amino acids and other nutrients. Attracted to these nutrients, ants carry the seeds back to their nests and feed the elaiosomes to their larvae. The ants either discard the remaining seed in a separate chamber of their nest, or toss it back out onto the ground. Either way, this process, called myrmecochory, helps ensure that the bloodroot seeds are dispersed for germination. Other spring wildflowers, such as violets, trilliums, hepaticas and Canada wild ginger, also form this mutual relationship with ants.

Ants help disperse the seeds after ripe bloodroot pods split open.

A member of the poppy family, bloodroot is native to much of eastern North America from Nova Scotia south to Florida, west to Manitoba and south to Texas. Native Americans used the plant’s red sap to make paint and to dye clothing, leather and other items. It blooms from March to May in Minnesota woodlands and was one of the first native wildflowers that I identified in the woods at our cabin years ago. The plants in most of these photos grow in our backyard. They hold special meaning for me because they were a gift from my aunt, who grew them under her trees for decades. They remind me of how she nurtured my love for nature when I was young.

Native bloodroot covers a hillside above the Mississippi River in the Twin Cities.

Further reading:

Ants as Seed Dispersers

Friends of the Wildflower Garden – Bloodroot

Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources – Bloodroot

Wisconsin Horticulture – Bloodroot

Spring Happens All Around Us

Raindrops collect on new spirea (Spirea japonica) leaf rosettes.

On a recent morning, a friend looked outside and noticed the green blush beginning on trees and bushes. She recalled a teaching colleague’s comment during playground duty years ago. The colleague, a quiet woman of few words said, joyfully, “Oh, take a look! Spring is happening right before our eyes!”

Indeed it is. Thunderstorms, rain and mild temperatures coaxed baby leaves from their snug buds. They open like tiny green roses, flawless and smooth, not yet chewed upon by insects or mammals. Even on these cloudy, gray days buds and baby leaves paint the landscape in soft pastel greens and yellows. Don’t miss their fleeting, fragile beauty! They’ll quickly mature to full size and summer’s cool greens.

Many baby leaves, like these oaks, emerge in shades of yellow or “spring green” and later deepen to their full color.

New leaves open like flawless green roses on dwarf Tina Sargent crabapple (Malus sargentii ‘Tina’)

Maple Flowers

silvermapleflower1

In Minnesota, native maple trees typically flower before bees and other pollinators are active.

Spring’s earliest flowers are popping open: gauzy crocus clusters, squill — Siberian and striped — and snowdrops that have bloomed through snow, cold and high winds for a month. They are lovely, these Eurasian transplants that paint the earth with pockets of bright color. Our native blooms are more hidden and less showy, yet are beautiful in their unflowerlike forms.

Look up at the maple trees. Easy to miss high overhead, these blossoms are small, muted and less recognizable as flowers. Each emerges from a scarlet bud coat and glitters with golden, translucent filaments tipped in auburn pollen. They remind me of minute, single-celled creatures that we might see in a drop of water under a microscope, or of the tiny squiggly animals living on a coral reef — beauty suspended in air rather than water.

silvermaplecaron

Male flowers of the silver maple (Acer saccharinum) are packed with pollen for wind dispersal.

 

The female flowers of red maples (Acer rubrum) remind me of tiny coral reef creatures.

Oh, and even if we don’t notice the flowers overhead, if you are allergic to tree pollen, your “nose knows” that maples are blooming! Why do they disperse so much pollen? In most years, maples and a few other trees bloom before native bees and honey bees are active. The early-flowering trees depend on indirect wind pollination. Male flowers produce copious pollen to successfully fertilize female flowers on other maples.

Who Will Nest Here?

Black-capped chickadees, downy woodpeckers and white-breasted nuthatches recently explored this cavity in our apple tree.

Our beacon apple tree is pushing 80 years old. It’s dropped a few limbs over time; some splintered under the weight of apples, others weakened with age and rot. One old limb bears a small cavity. “So what?” you think —  unless you’re a chickadee, nuthatch or other cavity dweller looking for a nesting site. All three species frequently explore and tussle over this cavity, and I believe the chickadees are winning.

One sunny, frigid afternoon, a downy woodpecker pair ducked in and out of the cavity and were confronted and chased away by a black-capped chickadee. A curious white-breasted nuthatch also sidled over for a peek and was waved off by the chickadee. Later, three chickadees fluttered around the opening until two chased off the third. The remaining pair excavated and removed wood chips from the cavity interior; evidence they are preparing a nesting site! The male sings his territorial “fee-bee” (sometimes “fee-bee-bee”) song. I first heard him sing on December 31. 

One member of the black-capped chickadee pair (Poecile atricapillus) removes wood chips from the apple tree cavity.

Chickadees deposit excavated wood chips away from the nest site to avoid leaving signs for predators.

Will this pair nest in our apple tree? Black-capped chickadees prepare multiple nesting sites before the female chooses one, so we won’t know for a few weeks. Wherever they nest, the female will line the tree cavity with moss, soft plant fibers, feathers, hair and fur. She will lay 1-13 (usually 6-8) white eggs marked with reddish-brown spots. The female incubates the eggs and the male feeds her on the nest. Once the hatchlings are old enough to be alone for a short time, both parents feed them. Insects (including their eggs and caterpillars) and spiders comprise most of their high-protein summer diet. Black-capped chickadees also eat other small invertebrates, seeds, nuts and berries. They’ll visit seed and suet feeders in the winter. One cold afternoon, as I topped off our sunflower seed feeder, a cheeky chickadee landed on the edge of my filling-cup, snatched a seed off the top and flew into our arbor vitae hedge to either eat its treat, or cache it for another day.

Black-capped chickadees remain in Minnesota year round.  They are common in much of the northern United States and most of Canada.

I enjoy the chickadees’ curiosity, high-energy antics and their melodious breeding calls, especially as winter drags on. Stay tuned to find out whether or not they nest in our apple tree.

Further Reading

Black-capped Chickadee; Audubon Bird Guide

Chickadee Delight. The Sleepy Eye Herald-Dispatch. February 3, 2020.

Haupt, Lyanda Lynn. The Urban Bestiary: Encountering the Everyday Wild. (First edition). New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2013.

January Silence and Sound

Male cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) typically begin singing during mid-January in Minnesota. (I photographed this fellow on a sunny winter morning.)

The weight of winter silence presses on my ears. Heavy snowflakes drape tree limbs, topple seed heads and cover squirrel nests with a crystalline blanket. Falling snow absorbs the whir of auto engines, which pass almost noiselessly down the street. Even the incessant hum of the airport is muffled.

Suddenly, in the snowy hush a northern cardinal sings: “What cheer-cheer-cheer-cheer.” He repeats his joyful song four times and falls silent. His call momentarily illuminates the quiet. His red brilliance punctuates the black, gray and white of a January snowfall.

It is the first time I’ve heard a cardinal sing since last summer. In Minnesota, they typically begin singing in mid-January and will soon renew pair bonds and breeding territories. I welcome his upbeat melody that, along with the lengthening daylight, signals another milestone on the journey to spring.

Further Reading:

Northern Cardinal (All About Birds)

Northern Cardinal Minnesota DNR

Winter Crane Flies

Maple and basswood line the banks of the Mississippi River.

We hike along the Mississippi River as a cloudless sky, calm wind and a mild 52°F settle in for the afternoon. (The average high for Minneapolis-Saint Paul is 28°F today.) Blue jays, black-capped chickadees, and red-bellied woodpeckers call; gray squirrels rattle through the crisp fallen leaves. The river’s surface is unmarked by ripple or wave, and two Canada geese float a few feet from shore, honking softly to each other. 

Winter crane flies (Trichocera species) swarm and mate on mild winter days.

Wherever rays of winter sunlight stream through bare branches of basswood and maple, the air shimmers with small swarms of winter crane flies. The low December sun ignites their wispy forms into sparks of gold. They zip around as energetically as though it were July.

Most types of crane flies are abundant in summer. Just a few species mature and mate in the winter. The swarms shimmering in the afternoon sun consist mainly of males. Females join them briefly to mate, and then lay their eggs in rotting leaves and soil. When not in flight on mild days, the adults rest in protected areas such as hollow trees and caves. (What could they possibly find to eat during a Minnesota winter? Not much. In fact, adults typically don’t eat at all! The larvae eat rotting vegetation, fungi and animal scat.)

They sparkle like tiny gold jewels in patches of winter sunlight.

Winter crane flies are most common in late autumn, early spring and sometimes on mild winter days. Today, they never stray from the sun’s mild warmth — nor do we! A rare Minnesota December day, indeed, and one to remember when winter weather returns.

Further reading:

Winter Crane Fly (Family Trichoceridae)

Winter Crane Flies

 

 

November Honey Bees and Asters

A honey bee (Apis mellifera) nectars in asters (Aster novi-belgii) on a summer-like November day.

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.

October Yellow (Move Over, Red!)

 

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.

 

Thoughts About Dad

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.

A Stick isn’t Always a Stick!

This northern walkingstick (Diapheromera femorata) is close to 4 inches long and is most likely a young insect or nymph, which are light green.

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.

Walkingsticks fold their front legs straight forward, next to their antennae, to appear more sticklike.

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.

Further reading: 

Northern Walkingstick: UW-Milwaukee Field Station

Walkingstick: Iowa State University Extension and Outreach

Northern Walkingstick: Minnesota Seasons