Signs of Autumn

Grape woodbine vines (Parthenocissus inserta) weave color through an old wood pile.

The warm, windy afternoon feels summery, but there’s no denying the first signs of autumn present in the woods and fields of east central Minnesota. I smell the sharp, earthy scent of crisp, dry leaves. Many trees are still green, but basswoods are shedding their leaves, silver maples are going gold, and red oaks show splotches of bright color. The most colorful leaves belong to the grape woodbine vines that climb over an old wood pile and thread scarlet up the trunks of many trees.

Ripe acorns drop, swishing through leaves as they fall. Some hit hard like a rock; some bounce and tumble down the cabin roof; others plunk and splash into the water of the Snake River. Blue jays, chipmunks and gray squirrels scramble to collect and store the nuts for winter. The turf is also littered with hickory nuts, walnut husks and basswood nutlets.

Grape woodbine and lichens light up the trunk of an old silver maple tree.

The large heart-shaped leaves of basswoods, or lindens (Tilia americana), are the first to be shed this year.

A mossycup or bur oak acorn (Quercus macrocarpa); the seed of a white oak that prefers rich, moist soil and grows along the riverbank.

Eastern chipmunks (Tamias striatus) gather acorns, hickory and other nuts to eat over the winter.

Roadsides and fields offer a bounty of autumn wildflowers — native asters, tall sunflowers, bottle gentians, Black-eyed Susan’s and a few others. Bees, wasps and painted lady butterflies hang like ornaments on the blossoms and the air is heavy with their busy drone.

Mixed groups of migrating warblers hunt for insects, swinging like tiny acrobats on tree branches. The pesky gnats, mosquitos and other tiny bugs that annoy us fuel the warblers’ journey to Central America.

A bumble bee (Bombus spp.) pollinates tall sunflowers (Helianthus giganteus).

A bald-faced hornet (Dolichovespula maculate) drinks nectar from panicled asters (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum).

Painted lady butterflies (Vanessa cardui) are attracted to red clover, thistle and other autumn wildflowers.

A bladk-and-white warbler (Mniotilta varia) hunts insects in the river shallows.

In a few short weeks, all of this busy activity will disappear and the quiet of winter will descend. In the meantime, I hope for a long, warm autumn and will enjoy the changing beauty of trees, flowers, seeds and creatures. What signs of autumn do you notice?

Gray dogwoods (Cornus racemosa) develop white berries and maroon leaves in autumn. The berries are a favorite food of grouse and pheasant.

 

Painted Ladies

Black, white and shades of orange set off the upper wings of a painted lady.

Bright orange, black and white, a brush of pink underneath; these butterflies are too small and swift to be monarchs. Painted ladies (Vanessa cardui) are everywhere; perched on the roof, fence and sun-warmed sidewalk — and especially in the garden (15 to 20 most of the time) on asters, Joe-Pye, sedum and garlic chives. The last time I remember seeing so many was in 2001 or 2002. My neighbor’s sedum ‘autumn joy’ was covered with the butterflies. Our son was little and we sat together in a patch of warm September sun watching the bright creatures sipping nectar.

Why such large numbers? Painted lady populations have cyclic highs and lows. Numbers are high now, possibly linked to good weather in their wintering grounds. Unlike many butterflies in the north, the ‘ladies’ migrate, and that’s happening now. Scientists think that the painted lady has the widest range of any butterfly in the world, living on parts of five continents. In North America, adults overwinter in the southern United States and Mexico, but cannot survive the northern winter.

Four eyespots along the edge of the hind underwing help identify a painted lady.

An easy way to identify painted ladies is to look for four brown ‘eyespots’ along the edge of the hind underwing. The closely related American lady (Vanessa virginiensis) has two large spots in the same region. Another relative, the red admiral (Vanessa atalanta), doesn’t have any spots on the underwing.

A painted lady nectars on native Joe-Pye weed (Eutrochium maculatum).

I enjoy identifying and learning about all of the creatures that visit our garden. Perhaps, the most satisfying piece is sitting quietly next to the garden and the butterflies, hearing the slight sound of their flickering wings and the hum of bees, and watching the beautiful dance of color as the ladies move among the blooms. If you live in the Midwest, look at your garden, a field of flowers, or perhaps a roadside this weekend, and you might spot the painted ladies.

Garlic chives (Allium tuberosum) are very attractive to the painted ladies visiting our garden.

 

Lake Michigan Walk

In August, many wildflowers begin to bloom in the Upper Midwest. Bees, wasps, moths and butterflies visit them for nectar and pollen. While in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, last weekend, we walked along Lake Michigan to enjoy the warm sun, gentle breeze and flowers both native and non-native that grace the shoreline. Among the blooms were chicory, Queen Anne’s lace, everlasting pea, goldenrod, sweet clover, gray-headed coneflower, bouncing Bet, red clover, Black-eyed Susan, monarda and lesser burdock. (If you look closely, you’ll spot a few pollinators, too.)

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Monarda: A Balm for Bees and People

Monarda fistulosa and Monarda didyma are native to eastern Canada and the United States.

It’s late July, a high-summer evening in the garden. I close my eyes and listen to the gentle hum of bumble bees and honey bees. The heavy aroma of day lilies mixes with the lighter scent of phlox. I brush my hand on the foliage next to our patio, releasing a different scent: the tangy mint of monarda. Two kinds grow in our garden: fiery red Monarda didyma and lavender-pink Monarda fistulosa.  Also known as bergamot, both are native to Minnesota and to much of the eastern United States and Canada.

Ten or more years ago, I found lavender monarda growing next to our cabin driveway. That autumn, I brought home a small portion and planted it. A few years later, I purchased the red monarda at Leitner’s, a local garden center. Both flourish as long as late winter and spring aren’t too wet.

Bright red M. didyma smells more spicy than the pink M. fistulosa.

Monarda belongs to the mint family, but is much taller and better behaved than many of its minty cousins. Look closely and you’ll see mint characteristics: square rather than round stems, tubular flowers, opposite leaves and of course the wonderful minty scent when one brushes against the foliage.

Besides monarda, there are other names for the plants. Bergamot applies to both species. Oswego tea and bee balm apply to the red M. didyma, but the term bee balm is also loosely used for M. fistulosa. I thought it referred to how happy the bees are when they’re in the monarda, but according to a book about wildflower lore, a salve or balm was made from the leaves to treat bee stings. Monarda plants also were used by many Native American people to treat headaches, abdominal problems, colds and other bronchial issues. Both species were used as a tea substitute in the American colonies after the Patriot Sons of Liberty dumped 46 tons of British East India Tea into Boston Harbor in December 1773.

Bumble bees (Bombus spp.) prefer the lavender-pink monarda in our garden. Their long tongues can reach the nectar in the deep, tubular flowers.

A honey bee (Apis mellifera) flies in to drink the nectar of Monarda ‘Jacob Kline’. They favor red monarda.

Monarchs, fritillaries, red admiral butterflies and hummingbird clearwing moths nectar in both species of monarda. Goldfinches peck the seed heads of the lavender monarda and hummingbirds visit the red ones. I’ve noticed that honey bees nectar almost exclusively in the tubular flowers of red monarda. Bumble bees, though not as fussy as honey bees, seem to prefer the pink — and sometimes they’ll take a quick nap on a blossom! Bees lack a photoreceptor for the color red, but according to “The ABC’s of Bees,” some red flowers, including bee balm, have ultraviolet coloring mixed in, which makes them appear blue and inviting to bees. Also, like humans, bees are attracted to scent and perhaps honey bees prefer the spicier scent of the red monarda. As the sky darkens and the crickets begin chirping, I look again at the beauty of bee balm and, like the bees, enjoy the spicy mint aroma before I go inside for the night.

Hummingbird clearwing moths (Hemaris thysbe), like their namesake, nectar in monarda’s tubular flowers.

A great spangled fritillary (Speyeria cybele) nectars on pink bergamot.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) love the red bee balm and visit every evening.

A bumble bee settles in for an afternoon snooze on pink bergamot.

My Mother’s Peonies

In my mind’s eye, I see a cobalt blue glass vase holding three white peonies. It sits on a white linen runner that contrasts with the dark wood of an old mahogany table. The heavy scent of peonies fills the small dining room that is illuminated by a south-facing picture window. A few black ants crawl in and out of the many-layered petals, though we tried to shake them off outside.

Mom’s simple bouquet’s were perfect.  Whether peonies, or other flowers, she fashioned a simple, understated arrangement of whatever bloomed in our back yard. I wish that I had photos of them, but only the memories remain — and they are mine alone. Mom does not remember much of the past because she has dementia. So, I tell her about the white peony bushes that grew at just the right height for me to breathe in their heavy perfume and stroke their silky petals. I speak of warm afternoons when I was very young and how we lingered in our garden to watch bees in the flowering almond, and looked to see if new seedlings had popped through the soil. I speak of the giant basswood tree that shaded the back yard and scented the evening air. Most importantly, I tell Mom how much I loved being with her in the garden.

This week, the first peony opened in my own back yard — white blooms first, then royal red and finally pink. I still touch their soft petals and smell their perfume. I remember with joy the days when I taught my own young son about nature, and I think of Mom with gratitude for all that she has given to me.

Blooming Crabs

Whatever crabapples lack in flavor, the trees make up for in year-round beauty. In early May, they scent the air with an aroma softer than lilacs or peonies. The blossoms range from bright white to pink to deep red. Many species show buds of one color and open to reveal a different hued blossom. The fruit or pomme varies in color, too, from deep red to orange and yellow. Many crabs hold their fruit through the winter, or until eaten by wildlife.

Why is such a lovely tree named a crab? Late Middle English crab or crabbe meant “fruit of the wild apple” possibly from the similar Swedish word, krabbäpple. It also connoted the sour or bitterness of the fruit. Though crabapples are bitter to the human palate, the fruit is an important source of nourishment to many mammals and birds during the winter. In the spring, native bees, such as orchard bees, collect pollen. Early butterflies drink the nectar and later in the season, the leaves provide food for caterpillars.

Scientists believe that all domestic apples originated in Kazakhstan’s mountains. But, there are three species of “wild,” or crabapples, indigenous to North America. Many others were brought here by immigrants from Europe and Asia. How does one distinguish between the two types of apples? A general rule is that wild apples (crabs) are two inches in circumference or smaller and domesticated apples are larger than two inches. Like common or domesticated apples, crabs are members of the rose family and belong to the genus ‘Malus’. Crabapple jelly is delicious if you don’t mind a little tartness! But whether or not you like the fruit, enjoy the beauty of their blossoms this spring!