Violets Aren’t Always Violet!

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).

The common violet or wooly violet (Viola sororia) blooms from April to June in the eastern United States and Canada.

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.

The white form of the common violet clearly shows the pollinator “honey guides” on the bottom petal.

This violet came from my mom’s garden. I’d never seen violets this shade and loved them.

The downy yellow violet’s (Viola pubescens) stems and undersides of leaves are covered in soft, downy hair.

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.

Many fritillary caterpillars feed only on violets. This adult great-spangled fritillary (Speyeria cybele)  nectars on pink bergamot.

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!

Spring Ephemerals: Hepatica

This year, I look for spring close to home. I haven’t hiked in a nature preserve yet, and we’ve stayed home from our cabin. I miss those places, but I’m enjoying many simple delights right here, including a few native spring flowers. While bloodroot blooms fade, another spring ephemeral¹, hepatica, buds and opens.

Round-lobed hepatica (Hepatica nobilis) blooms range from white to purple in color.

Hepatica, liverleaf, or liverwort, is named for its leaves that are three-lobed and can be a brownish-bronze color (like the human liver) at winter’s end. Each spring, the fuzzy flower stalks push up through the old leaves to bloom in pastels ranging from white to purple. In Minnesota, hepatica can begin blooming anytime from early April into May — before the trees leaf out. Bees, early butterflies, beetles and flies pollinate the small flowers depending on how early they bloom. Fresh green leaves will grow up from beneath the flower stalks to remain until next spring.

Hepatica’s fuzzy flower stalks slowly unfurl to reveal the delicate flowers.

Hepatica leaves are three-lobed. The previous year’s leaves are often brownish-red or bronze and reminded earlier people of the human liver. (Hepatica is from the Greek word for liver.)

In it’s natural setting, hepatica often grows under oak trees — that’s where I first spotted it peeping out among tattered brown leaves one warm April day at our cabin. (I purchased the hepatica in my garden at a local nursery.) It is a woodland wildflower that prefers full spring sun that becomes dappled sun as the trees leaf out. Two species are native to Minnesota — round-lobed and sharp-lobed — and are very similar in appearance. It’s also very well-behaved, so a gardener needn’t worry about hepatica overtaking the garden!

This week in the yard, besides the blooming hepatica, bloodroot leaves unfurled and increased in size as seed pods swelled. Many tiny native bees, and a not-so-tiny queen two-spotted bumble bee, pollinated the spring flowers. A wave of hermit thrushes ate insects and seeds in the backyard most of the week before continuing north to their nesting grounds. 

As the bloodroot blossoms (Sanguinaria canadensis) wilt, the leaves unfold and the seed pods begin to swell.

A queen bumble bee (Bombus bimaculatus) hovers above glory-of-the-snow (Chionodoxa luciliae) blossoms.

A hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus), one of the most ethereal songsters I’ve heard, rests on its journey to northern Minnesota and Canada.

Nesting sites are a hot commodity locally, too: A female mallard sits on her nest completely hidden in our neighbor’s daylily garden. Robins nest in arbor vitae behind the garage and cardinals nest in a neighbor’s small evergreen shrub. Each day, the cardinal pair visits our garden where the male gently feeds his mate. In a few weeks, the begging calls of this year’s first fledglings will fill the air. I look forward to seeing their plump, downy bodies following their parents around the garden!

¹Spring ephemerals are perennial plants that appear quickly in early spring and die back until the next year, such as bloodroot, hepatica, trout lily and Virginia bluebells.

 

Spring: Inconsistent as Usual

Striped squill (Puschkinia scilloides), Siberian squill (Scilla siberica) and crocus bloom before last week’s snowstorm.

Spring in Minnesota is as fitful as ever — in other words, it’s one of the few things that remains normal during the pandemic. A week ago, Saturday was sunny and 70 degrees. Honey bees explored the squill patch and the first bloodroot blossoms unfurled white and gold. Twelve hours later, a cold front settled over the state. More than five inches of heavy, wet snow buried the garden and coated every bud, twig and trunk. Fox sparrows scratched and dug under the garden hedge sending snow, leaves and dirt flying behind them. A chubby American robin plucked the few remaining crabapples from a small tree. When the air warmed above freezing midweek, a few flowers were wilted and tinged with brown, but those that still had a covering of snow perked right up.

Sticky snow transformed a greening world back to winter black and white.

Traces of snow linger in the shady, northern corners of the yard, but most areas look like spring again — for now. While almost all of Minnesota’s record-breaking April snowstorms have occurred mid-month or earlier, that’s not always been true. Remember that April 29-30 storm in 1984? It dumped 9.7 inches of snow on the Twin Cities to close out the month. It’s all part of a typical Minnesota spring. Here’s a look at what’s growing in the backyard now that the snow has melted.

Bright green moss and its spore capsules are a refreshing sight after the snow.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) is one of the earliest spring wildflowers to bloom in Minnesota. Each flower is wrapped in a single leaf before opening.

A honey bee (Apis mellifera) in the Siberian squill is the first one I spotted this year.

A northern magnolia (Magnolia stellata) bud, slightly frostbitten, unfurls on a milder day.

Baby leaves and bud clusters of Canada cherry (Prunus virginiana).

Salt Marsh Beauty

Native salt marsh grasses and pines. (All photos taken with iPhone XS.)

Beauty exists in Earth’s harshest places. On the Florida coast it’s easy to opt for a leisurely seashore walk and pass up a salt barren. Even the name sounds harsh, but these salt marshes, or salterns, along Florida’s West-Central Gulf Coast present their own simple beauty.

At first glance, I notice the Florida slash pines, longleaf pines and native grasses flowing low beneath an open sky. Closer to the water, seagrape, black mangrove and red mangrove grow. Songs of mockingbirds, mourning doves and northern cardinals blend with the swish of grass and pine needles. Delicate Spanish moss drapes many trees and billows in the unceasing wind. The birds quiet down in the late afternoon and leave a stillness so complete that I feel its weight — and relish it in these unsettling days.

Seagrapes (Coccoloba uvifera) anchor the soil and produce a sweet fruit that makes a fine jelly.

Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) is an epiphyte, or air plant, not a true moss. It often grows on cypress and oaks for support.

Wildflowers pop up in the dry, salty sand: sea purslane, sea oxeye daisies, sweetscent, coral bean, blanket flowers, dewberry, southern beeblossom, sea purslane, and even prickly pear cactus.

Sea purslane (Sesuvium portulacastrum) is highly salt tolerant and flourishes on the upper edges of salt marshes and coastal dunes. The holes visible above the blossom are fiddler crab homes.

Seaside oxeye daisies (Borrichia frutescens) are common in salt marshes and between mangrove swamps and coastal uplands.

Southern beeblossom (Gaura angustifolia) flowers open white at night and turn pink the following day.

Southern dewberry (Rubus trivialis) is a cousin to the blackberry. It grows on the ground instead of upright.

Native blankert flower (Gaillardia pulchella) prefers dry, sandy soil and tolerates salt well.

Prickly pears (Opuntia humifusa) are a major food source for gopher tortoises in the scrubland.

Sweetscent (Pluchea odorata) grows in salty habitats and attracts butterflies and bees.

Coral beans (Erythrina herbacea) attract hummingbirds and bees.)

Ospreys circle overhead, little blue herons hunt in the mangroves, flocks of ibis gobble tiny crustaceans at low tide in the bayou and pelicans lounge in the marshes. A southern black racer snake darts across the sand path. We spot skinks, anoles and marsh rabbits. My favorite sightings are the zebra longwing, gulf fritillaries and queen butterflies nectaring in the wildflowers. Here are a few other photos from recent walks in the salterns.

American white pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) feed in a shallow wetland near the marshes. (Watercolor by my husband.)

A little blue heron (Egrella cerulea) hunts for fish, frogs and small crustaceans in the mangroves.

The zebra longwing (Heliconius charitonius) is Florida’s state butterfly.

The queen butterfly (Danaus gilippus), a cousin to the monarch, also depends solely on milkweed for its nutrition.

Gulf fritillaries (Agraulis vanillae) are active all year in south Florida.

saltmarshquiet

In the late afternoon, all is quiet. There is only the sun’s heat and the fullness of silence.

 

Seed Story

Prairie grass seeds glow in late-afternoon sun.

Seeds are tiny packets of possibility nestled in the earth. One could easily mistake a seed for a piece of soil, a pebble, or fragment of some spent plant. But each holds a spark of life waiting to ignite in spring’s intense sun and snowmelt.

I have loved seeds for as long as I can remember. As a young child I held morning glory, blue flax, nasturtium and snap dragon seeds as my mother prepared the ground for planting. She cultivated the soil, tossed out pebbles and broke up pieces of clay. We traced a shallow furrow in which I placed the seeds, buried them and watered them with her help.

In elementary school, we grew green beans in Dixie cups.  A bean seed is substantial enough for a child to get a good grip on its silky-smooth shape. Our classroom bubbled with excitement the morning we arrived to find pale green sprouts pushing through the dirt! The challenge was to get the seedlings home without breaking them off. I grew mine on strings attached to the side of our garage; not fancy, but the stalks vined upward, blossomed white and yellow, and we ate fresh green beans a few weeks later. 

Another year, my brother’s class grew pumpkins. He planted his seedlings in a corner of our urban backyard. By mid summer, baby pumpkins grew over, under and even between the wooden pickets of our fence! That October, he loaded his wagon, lugged it around the neighborhood and sold all of his pumpkins at the bargain price of 10 cents a piece.

I also cherish memories of teaching our son about seeds. We planted tomatoes, radishes, beans, carrots, dill, basil, parsley and borage. He loved to watch for the first sprouts and sampled the baby carrots and beans as they grew. On warm summer mornings, we’d gently run our hands over the herbs to release their aromas. One year, the parsley plants were host to eastern black swallowtail butterfly caterpillars. They demolished the parsley, but taught the butterfly life cycle hands-on.

Seeds of purple hyacinth (Lablab purpureus) and scarlet runner (Phaseolus coccineus) beans produce colorful blossoms and pods.

Some seeds are nondescript. Others hold beauty in their patterns, pods and shapes. Purple hyacinth bean seeds look like ice cream sandwiches and scarlet runner bean seeds are colored crimson and black like the last bit of light in a stormy evening sky. Canada columbine, Siberian iris and day lily seeds are shiny black beads that gleam in their spilt pods. Others, like white snakeroot and asters, are clouds of fluff designed to disperse on the wind. Whether humble or eye-catching, each must fall to the dirt, be buried and moistened. Only then can its journey to light and life begin.

Oblong black seeds and fluff of native white snakeroot (Ageratina altissima) ripen in October.

Ripe Canada columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) pods break open to release shiny, black seeds.

Seeking Winter’s Beauty

Nature’s beauty is spare and uncomplicated in winter.

In the Upper Midwest, there’s little that isn’t hidden under layers of snow in January. What remains is pared down to basics: bare branches, open seed pods and stripped down stalks. Their lines are clean, sharp, punctuated by frozen fruit and picked-over seed heads.

Prickly seed heads of Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta).

Plump apples of the dwarf Tina Sargent crabapple (Malus sargentii ‘Tina’).

January’s color palette is simple: white, black, shades of brown, berry reds and green hues of conifers. Cloudless skies range from deep to powder blue during daylight, softening to a blue tint after sunset, and on moonshine nights, the snow glows with a cold, blue light seen only in midwinter.

 

Tart fruit of the nonpoisonous staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina).

Male downy woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens).

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca).

To find winter’s beauty requires ignoring the persistent desire to “just go back inside” to warm up! It is necessary to open one’s senses to the more subtle signs of life: perhaps you’ll hear the call of a black-capped chickadee, the tap-tap of a woodpecker looking for food, or the soft hoots of courting great-horned owls. Maybe you’ll spot the showy red of sumac fruit or plump crabapples. Perhaps you’ll touch the satiny inner lining of a milkweed pod, or the prickly seed head of a black-eyed Susan. If you’re fortunate enough to have native grasses growing nearby, stop for a moment and inhale their sweet, ripe scent — a lingering gift of autumn. Whenever you go outside, try to be open to winter’s spare beauty so very different from its abundance in spring, summer and autumn. Already the days are lengthening and the the sun is warmer. Winter will soon give way to spring.

A quiet place to observe winter’s beauty.

Opt for Gratitude

Eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) and Joe-Pye weed (Eutrochium maculatum).

Gratitude is a choice, a state of heart and mind as clean and uncomplicated as a butterfly, or a sky-blue October day. It requires a shift from ruminating on the negative to touching all that is good about a particular moment. Gratitude is not Pollyannaism; one acknowledges that life is often difficult and sometimes unfair, but chooses to find and embrace joy and goodness anyway. 

A perfect October day in Minnesota.

Gratitude is unique to each of us and our circumstances at a specific point in time. As we celebrate Thanksgiving Day, I am grateful for nature’s endless beauty, a stranger’s warm greeting, the radiant smiles of my niece’s baby and preschooler, my husband’s tenderness and patience, our son’s thoughtful calls, my aging dad’s mostly positive attitude, the kindness of my siblings and friends, and the insights and laughter of the women in my spirituality group. What inspires gratitude in your heart?

Monarch (Danaus plexippus) and common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca).