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.
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:
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I began cutting back our garden on one of the few warm days before last week’s hard frost. It was sunny and windy. Yellow maple and apple leaves sailed through the yard. Blue jays called raucously. Chimpmunks and squirrels ate nuts and stashed others for the winter. A few flowers still bloomed, though most now sported full seed heads. Among the blooms were the last native bees and butterflies of autumn. Here are a few of late October’s simple gifts:
I spotted my first monarch caterpillar (Danaus plexippus) of the season last week. I almost overlooked its tiny black, white and yellow striped body, which was about 1/4 inch, or 7mm long. It crawled slowly on a milkweed plant (Asclepias syriaca) where I saw my first adult monarchs of the year on June 3.
This tiny caterpillar faces many challenges on its journey to adulthood. In fact, fewer than 10 percent of all monarch eggs metamorphosize into butterflies, according to Monarch Joint Venture. Many garden critters prey on monarch caterpillars, especially parasitic wasps, tachnid flies, jumping spiders, the larvae of Asian ladybugs, and lacewing larvae. Most eat the caterpillars. Others, such as tachnid flies, lay their eggs on them. The eggs hatch and burrow into the caterpillar, which they use for nutrition and protection. It’s easy to dislike insects that prey on monarchs, but these predators also destroy many garden pests and are vital to the health of gardens and woodlands.
Weather conditions, food availability, pesticide use, damage from being stepped on or run over, and infection from bacteria and viruses also reduce monarch caterpillar numbers. The 10 percent that survive grow quickly on their milkweed diet and will molt five times over 9-to-14 days. Each stage between molts is known as an instar. The 5th instar usually leaves the milkweed plants in search of a safe place to form its chrysalis, where it completes the change to adulthood. The entire process from egg to adult lasts about one month.¹
Monarch caterpillars can be very elusive, but I’ll keep watching for them. In spite of predators, poor weather and other challenges, it’s likely that at least one or two will complete their journey to adulthood in our garden. They’ll pollinate many plants, lay eggs for the next generation of monarchs, and add beauty to our world.
Like most of life, my garden is a mix of good and not so great: desirable plants and weeds, loamy soil and heavy clay, beneficial insects and annoying pests — and early August brought many types of insects to our garden. Here are just a few stand-outs.
The biggest pest in our yard is the Japanese beetle, which skeletonizes the flowers and leaves of many plants. A few weeks ago they favored apple and crabapple trees, but I’ve also pulled them off of my rose, asters, day lilies and purple coneflowers. Now, they are shredding my hosta and anise hyssop blossoms. According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the beetles are native to northern Japan and probably arrived in a shipment of iris bulbs in 1916. They have no natural predators, although some birds, such as starlings, robins, bluejays and sparrows will sometimes eat the adult beetles and the grubs, which live in lawns.
Yesterday I picked 46 beetles off of my royal standard hostas. I used to squish them, but that releases their pheromones, which attract more beetles. Now I pick them off by hand and drop them in a small pail of soapy water, which kills them quickly without releasing their pheromones. I don’t use an insecticide because so many beneficial insects would die from the chemicals.
Unlike the Japanese beetle, ladybugs, or ladybird beetles, especially those native to North America, are beneficial to gardens. More than 500 species of ladybugs have been identified in the United States. Mom taught us never to harm ladybugs because they eat aphids, a major garden pest. Our native ladybugs don’t bite, so if you feel a pinch and find it’s from a ladybug, it is likely to be an Asian ladybug, which do nip — mainly because they seek moisture and salt, or they feel threatened. Asian ladybugs were imported in the 1970s to help destroy predators in agricultural operations. I let them be when I find them because they destroy so many aphids and other pests. However, the native ladybugs are better suited to our gardens and plant species.
Aphids, that favorite food of ladybugs, are tiny, often wingless, and very plentiful. There are more than 300 species of aphids in Minnesota and they are found on all types of plants. Most aphids on a plant are females that reproduce asexually, without having to mate. They also give birth instead of laying eggs. The newborns are clones of their mother, so they, too, are female. (Environmental conditions sometimes cause females to produce both female and male offspring, which are genetically identical to the mother, except that males lack one sex chromosome.) They come in many different colors. I’ve seen green, black, red, and I have orange ones on some of my milkweed plants. When aphids suck a plant’s sap, it causes curling, yellowing and browning of the leaves. Aphids also secrete a sticky, sweet liquid called honeydew. Last summer, during a heavy infestation of aphids, my milkweed plants were dripping with honeydew and covered with ants, which are attracted to the sweet liquid. Even though I washed the milkweed with water from the garden hose daily, the plants were disfigured and messy.
In contrast to the slow, rather clumsy flight of beetles, several species of dragonfly dart and swoop among the garden plants. Perched on a milkweed leaf, a green eastern pondhawk zips lightning-quick from its perch to capture a fly. Its powerful jaws quickly crush and consume its prey. Common in gardens, dragonflies eat mosquitoes, gnats, flies and other insects. Their shining colors add beauty to the garden.
Monarchs, red admirals and other butterflies are frequent visitors to our garden — especially now when the milkweed is blooming and the plants are in their prime for feeding monarch larvae. These tiny caterpillars feed only on milkweed and I discovered two of them a week ago. Adult monarchs sail through the garden stopping to nectar on milkweed, Joe-Pye, garden phlox and purple coneflowers.
Red admirals are smaller and fly faster and more erratically than monarchs. A male finds a sunny spot and watches for a female to fly by. After mating, the female lays eggs on nettle plants. Adults nectar on milkweed, red clover, ripe fruit and tree sap. They are one of the few species that overwinter in Minnesota, often in a wood pile or mound of leaves.
The summer garden harbors so many interesting, and often beautiful, insects. Next time you’re working in your garden, or simply enjoying your yard, take a look at the diversity of these tiny creatures all around us. The majority of them are either beneficial or harmless. Nifty or nasty? You decide!
Just before supper on a hot August evening, the air is heavy with smoky haze from Canadian forest fires. I hear the constant whine of cicadas and smell the scents of garden phlox and royal standard hostas. In a corner of our garden a creature of great beauty nectars in the Joe-Pye; its striped wings open and almost glow against a background of green leaves and shades of pink. The deep blue spots lining its hind wings reveal it to be a female eastern tiger swallowtail. She’s oblivious to the numerous bumblebees that gather nectar and pollen around her. At one point a territorial monarch chases her from the Joe-Pye. (The monarch repeats its rounds through the yard many times an hour, and tries to oust “intruders” — especially other large butterflies.) The two dance a quick scuffle in the air and the “tiger” disappears over the neighbor’s fence for a few minutes. She soon returns to the Joe-Pye garden and continues to nectar.
I like to recall such moments of warmth and beauty in January and February as I mark off the days on the calendar and wait for spring. I’ll think of the gentle humming of bumblebees, the lilting call of a goldfinch passing by, and the delicate, colorful wings of all of the butterflies that sail through the garden, especially the tiger swallowtail. I’ll remember that her progeny will overwinter in chrysalis form — attached to tree bark, a plant stem, or in leaf litter — snug and asleep under the snow. In May, they will hatch to continue their life cycle of beauty.