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.

 

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail Butterflies

A female eastern tiger swallowtail – black form (Papilio glaucus) nectars on an ironweed flower.

It was an unexpected gift on an August afternoon: A black eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly, its wings faded and worn, even tattered in places, showing its age.  It settled in for a long drink of nectar from an ironweed flower on the banks of the Snake River. Though we’re more likely to see the yellow form of the tiger swallowtail in the North, the black form isn’t rare or even uncommon — but it only occurs in females. The butterfly’s name refers to the long projections on its tail, which resemble a barn swallow’s tail.

An eastern tiger swallowtail – yellow form nectars on a monarda blossom.

In the northern United States, eastern tiger swallowtails typically fly from mid-May to late August or September. They usually have two broods per summer, and the young of the second group overwinter as chrysalids to emerge the following May. The caterpillars are bright green with two blue eye spots. (They turn brown when ready to form a chrysalis.) They mainly feed on the leaves of trees such as wild cherry, chokecherry, basswood, cottonwood, ash, willow and maple. Adults nectar on many types of flowers, but prefer wild cherry and lilac in spring, Joe-Pye weed and milkweed during the summer.

The name swallowtail comes from the long tail projections that resemble a barn swallow’s tail.

The ironweed on which I spotted it belongs to the Composite family, which also includes coneflowers, sunflowers, daisies, goldenrod, Joe-Pye weed, asters and others. Ironweed is a native perennial, prefers full sun and often grows near marshes, along riverbanks, edges of moist fields, and wet prairies. It’s typically 4-to-6 feet tall and its violet-colored flower clusters are often visited by bumblebees. The black tiger swallowtails seem attracted to ironweed and I’ve seen them on the blossoms in past years, too. I enjoy seeing both forms of the butterfly.

Ironweed (Vernonia fasciculata) grows on the banks of the Snake River in Pine County, Minnesota.

 

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.

Virginia Bluebells

Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) blossom throughout May in Minnesota.

Spring’s native wildflowers are delicate and fleeting — that’s why botanists refer to them as “ephemerals.” The Virginia bluebell, Mertensia virginica, is one of my favorites. The mature flowers are spring sky blue and usually bloom throughout May in Minnesota. Native to southeastern Minnesota and portions of the eastern United States and Canada, they are a woodland flower that requires moisture and partial-to-full shade.

Virginia bluebell’s early leaves are purple-tinged and the flower buds are pink to purplish.

The leaves first appear with purple highlights and then turn light green. The flower buds also are pink to purple. As the bell or trumpet-shaped flowers enlarge, they become sky blue and fade as they age. About one month after blooming, each fertilized flower produces three or four seeds. In June, the leaves will die back and the plant becomes dormant until the next spring — a typical characteristic of spring ephemerals. I usually place markers by my plants to avoid digging them up if I plant during the summer.

Virginia bluebells grow with tiny blue-flowered Siberian bugloss (Brunnera macrophylla “Jack Frost”), variegated Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum odoratum “Variegatum”), and sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) in my small woodland garden.

Virginia bluebells provide an early source of nectar to bumble bees, honey bees and other species of bees and butterflies that are equipped with a long enough tongue to reach deep into the flower tube.  Want to learn more? Here are a couple of websites to visit for photos and information:

Friends of the Wildflower Garden and Minnesota Wildflowers