Garden Damsels and Dragons

A thread-slender eastern forktail (Ishnura verticalis) damsel fly.

A thread-slender eastern forktail (Ischnura verticalis) damsel fly.

The early morning garden is a place of shadows and peace. Cardinals, goldfinches, mourning doves and house wrens ring out their song in neighborhood trees. Already, bumblebees work the flowers — bluebells, bee balm, hyssop and milkweed — buzzing softly.  Almost camouflaged in the deep green shadows, a tiny damselfly perches atop a milkweed leaf. An eastern forktail (Ischnura verticalis), its slender body, less than an inch long, is mint green, blue and black. The wings are folded over its back in damselfly style.

Across the backyard, a much larger dragonfly relative hangs from the edge of a hosta leaf, wings held away from its body horizontally. It is a green darner (Anax junius), one of the largest dragonflies in the world at three inches in length and with a wingspan of more than four inches. Its spring-green head and thorax hide it among the hosta. It “wing-whirs”, or rapidly vibrates its wings to warm up its flight muscles — and that movement catches my eye and reveals its presence.

A common green darner (Anax junius) is one of the largest dragonflies.

A common green darner (Anax junius) is one of the largest surviving dragonflies.

Damselflies and dragonflies are members of the order Odonata, which means “toothed ones”. Unlike the peaceable bumblebees, they are fierce predators, hunting for small insects in the garden and eating many pests. Odonata are descended from some of Earth’s most ancient creatures. Fossils of ancient dragonfly ancestors (Protodonata) date back 325 million years. Scientists believe that bees evolved more recently — about 120 million years ago; the oldest bee fossil discovered so far is about 100 million years old. Both insect families contribute to a healthy garden.

 

Michigan and Turk’s Cap Lily

Michigan lily (Lilium michiganense) growing near the Snake River in east central Minnesota.

Michigan lily (Lilium michiganense) growing near the Snake River in east central Minnesota.

They are a gift of wet years, often not blooming in summers of little rainfall. Native to eastern North America, the Michigan lily’s (Lilium michiganense) delicate tepals curve up and backward, setting it apart from most other native lilies. They range in color from light orange to red-orange and are speckled with purple. The closely related Turk’s cap lily (Lilium superbum) is almost identical in appearance. Turk’s caps can sometimes be distinguished by the presence of a green star in the flower’s throat, and anthers longer than 1/2 inch that are colored magenta or darker.  It is native to areas south of Minnesota, but has been widely introduced here. Both lilies grow from a bulb, reach a height of four to seven feet, and form thin, tiny seeds in a pod.

When our son was little, one of the first things he did when we arrived at our cabin was to check all of the damp spots where we’d found Michigan lilies in previous years. They like “wet feet” and grow in moist right-of-ways, near drainage ditches, and edges of woodlands along the Snake River and other streams. He delighted in finding them, and I was excited to find many in bloom last week.

The tepals curve up and back toward the base of the flower.

The tepals curve up and back toward the base of the flower.

Hummingbirds, sphinx moths and butterflies, such as monarchs and fritillaries, are attracted to the reddish blooms.  I’m attracted to them for a different reason. I think of light, joy and life when I see them glow so deeply in the morning sun. Both types of lily are becoming more uncommon in the wild due to roadside mowing and cultivation. If you spot these lilies growing on your property, please let them stand undisturbed until the plants become dormant in the fall.

Thoughts on a Butterfly

Sun glows on the wings of a crescent butterfly (Phyciodes).

Sun glows on the wings of a crescent butterfly (Phyciodes).

I spotted a small orange-and-black butterfly in a patch of white clover. Most butterflies rarely sit for more than a few seconds; this one was an avid sunbather, fully opening its dark-spotted wings and resting on a clover bloom for several minutes. Its wing pattern indicated it was a type of crescent butterfly.

Because of their similar appearance and habitat, crescents challenge us to identify them correctly, and this could have been either a pearl or northern crescent. Adults of both species nectar on white clover, asters, thistles and dogbane. Their brown, spiky caterpillars feed primarily on the leaves of asters, and they overwinter to become next spring’s first generation to take flight.

Look closely at the photos and you’ll see the crescent’s worn, tattered wing — evidence that it’s no newbie, has seen some extended flight time, has already lived a good portion of its life. And still, though it shows some wear and tear, it remains beautiful even as it ages and lives out its brief days.

Tattered butterfly wings may indicate a close call with a predator, or advancing old age.

Tattered butterfly wings may indicate a close call with a predator or advancing age.

I think of the recent death of my mother-in-law, Mary, and of my friend, Cathy, last January. I watched them complete their lives, I held their hands, hoped they could hear my prayers and words of comfort. I wonder about them often, and deeply hope that, as the simple brown caterpillar morphed into a creature of light and air, they too have transformed into something lovely and eternal.