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.

For the Beauty of the Earth

For the beauty of the earth,
For the beauty of the skies,
For the love which from our birth,
Over and around us lies,
Lord of all, to thee we raise,
This our hymn of grateful praise.

The St. Croix River Valley near Afton, MN.

Being a lover of nature, this simple hymn became a favorite of mine the first time I heard it. The story is that in 1864, 29-year-old Folliot S. Pierpont was walking in the English countryside near the River Avon and was filled with joy by the beauty of creation. He composed a poem, originally titled “The Sacrifice of Praise,” that was set to music by Conrad Kochler (and later by others).

There is such natural loveliness, both simple and complex, all around us. If possible, take a few minutes to notice nature every day — whether you live in a city apartment, or a house in the country; whether it is autumn-going-to-winter, or spring-going-to-summer in your part of the world; whether you can just look out a window at the moon and sky, or are able to walk in the woods. And, if possible, share it with a friend, child, parent, spouse, neighbor or other companion. I find that it makes for a grateful heart and a lighter outlook on life. Here are a few images of late autumn nature in Minnesota. What delights you in nature where you live?

A spider web catches the sun on the bank of the Snake River in Pine County, MN.

Prairie native big bluestem or turkey foot grass at Woodlake Nature Preserve in Minneapolis, MN.

Milkweed seeds are abundant in late November.

Late afternoon sun glows on prairie grass.

Pink-tinged seed heads of native Joe-Pye weed add color to gardens and prairies.

The soft seed heads of asters attract many birds, such as cardinals, goldfinches, chickadees and nuthatches.

The sky’s beauty is more visible as the trees shed their leaves. Just a few apple leaves remain on our tree.

 

 

Winged Beauty

The numerous blue scalings along the wing border identify this as an eastern tiger swallowtail female (Papilio glaucus).

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.

Joe-Pye (Eutrochium maculatum) is a favorite source of nectar for eastern tiger swallowtails.

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.

Walk in the Woods

Oak woods are a cool place to hike on a hot day.

If you’re looking for a cool, peaceful place on a hot day, go to the woods. One recent morning, my husband and I walked in the woods of a Twin Cities nature center. Mature white oaks shielded the trail from the day’s growing heat. The woods were filled with birdsong and I “birded by ear” because the thick foliage hid their colorful bodies. I heard the songs of Baltimore orioles, rose-breasted grosbeaks, common yellowthroats, black-capped chickadees, house wrens, red-eyed vireos and many more. The only other sounds were the swishing of leaves and long grass in the steady breeze, and a few quiet “good mornings” from other walkers.

I love the lush canopy of green leaves untouched by any change of color. These trees are primarily white oak with an understory of dogwood, chokecherry, sumac and common elderberry. Though we hadn’t reached the peak bloom time of native wildflowers, a few species blossomed on the woodland edges: vervain, common yarrow, tick trefoil, water lilies, monarda and the year’s first black-eyed Susan’s. In the marshy areas, dragonflies hovered and darted like flashing jewels. We set our stride for a long, peaceful hike content to be still and absorb the quiet beauty.

Pointed-leaved trefoil (Desmodium glutinous) commonly grows along shaded woodland edges.

The tiny blooms of blue vervain (Verbena hastata) attract many native bees and small butterflies.

Black-eyed Susan’s (Rubeckia hirta) are a drought-tolerant and long-blooming species of coneflower.

Common yarrow (Achillea millefolium) was used to treat pain and inflammation in many cultures.

The red fruit of smooth sumac (Rhus glabra) feeds many birds and small mammals during the winter.

Widow skimmers (Libellula luctuosa) are large, slow dragonflies that can approach two inches in length. The white and black wing patches indicate this is a male.

Immature and female widow skimmers are brown and lack the white wing markings.

This dragonfly’s completely separated eyes indicate that it belongs to the clubtail family, possibly a lily pad club (Arigomphus furcifer) with its azure eyes.

An American water lily (Nymphaea odoranta) blooms in the shadows on a quiet lake.

A Present Moment

A male eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) butterfly.

Our native monarda begins to bloom. One early-July afternoon, I read in the garden for a few minutes. It is so quiet with most of the neighborhood out-of-town for July vacations — I hear just the rustling of leaves and flowers in the breeze and a few mourning doves calling. A male eastern tiger swallowtail nectars in the monarda, and is so intensely focused on the blossoms that I walk right up to him with my camera. His wings are radiant yellow and unmarred, showing no signs of wear or age. The yellow glows when he dips into the shadows, and the scallops under his wings are vibrant orange and steely blue.

Underwings of an eastern tiger swallowtail on monarda or bergamot.

Though he ignores the company, three red admiral butterflies and several bumble bees busily nectar in nearby blossoms. They, too, are absorbed with collecting nectar and are oblivious of each other and of me.

Bumble bees (Bombus spp.) love the nectar of monarda blossoms.

Red admiral butterflies (Vanessa atalanta) visit gardens from April through October before migrating south.

This peaceful time on a warm summer afternoon is, for me, an active meditation on living in the present moment. It is a gift to share this time and space with such lovely creatures; to put aside frets and worries, to let go of the past and future; to just be in this one moment.

November Bulbs: Hope for the Spring

‘Maureen’ tulip bulbs bloom in late spring.

In the darkness of a warm, late November evening, my sister planted hope for the spring in my garden: five waxy-smooth, tear drop-shaped “Maureen” tulip bulbs. As she dug the bulb planter into the moist earth, the soil released fresh scents of spicy bee balm, native geraniums, and the pleasant odor of dirt and old leaves.

We nestled each bulb into its own little chamber, filled each space with dirt, lightly watered them and returned the blanket of fallen leaves. I placed a temporary cover of chicken wire and stones on the soil, until it freezes, to discourage squirrels from digging up the bulbs.

Spring bulbs emerging from their winter sleep is a highlight of spring for me.

I think about those small packets of life tucked into the dark earth, and wait for them to ride out the winter. Yes, it’s later than desirable to plant bulbs, but it is how it worked out this year for many reasons. I choose to have hope that they will survive. While I wait, I’ll dream of a mild April day when I’ll walk out the back door and spot bright green shoots poking up through the wet soil. I’ll watch them form buds and bloom; cool ivory against a field of blue Siberian squill and green foliage. In a special way, I will recall the two “Maureens” in my life: a wise aunt who died this past summer and a wonderful young niece who shares her name.

A ‘Maureen’ tulip from a previous spring.

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 Pine County in 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.