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:
What do you associate with the words “winged beauties”? Many would answer birds and butterflies — and I’d add damselflies and dragonflies, too. On a sunny, warm morning, a pair of inky black wings flutter near the Snake River. At first I think it’s a butterfly, but a closer look reveals the electric-blue-green body of a male ebony jewelwing damselfly; he flashes cool and iridescent in the morning sun.
A member of the broad-winged damselflies, ebony jewelwings fly more like a butterfly than like their dragonfly relatives. Their wings are 1-to-1½ inches long and their body length is up to 2¼ inches. The male’s colorful abdomen — green, teal, blue, even a hint of purple — shimmers in the sunlight. A female ebony jewelwing is similar in appearance, but not as showy as a male. Her body is brown with little bits of blue or green. Her wings are more transparent black and display a distinct white spot near each tip. (See a female at Wisconsin Odonata Survey.)
In the eastern United States and southeastern Canada, look for ebony jewelwings perched along shady banks of shallow streams and slow-moving rivers from late May until September. Adults live for about 20 days. A mating pair will often fly attached in the heart-shaped “wheel formation” and remain connected for several hours. Females deposit eggs inside of submerged water plant stems in quiet sections of streams or rivers. The larvae or naiads live in the water for about a year and eat other aquatic larvae, such as mosquitos and mayflies. Adults eat most soft-bodied insects, for example small moths, mosquitos, mayflies, gnats, flying ants and termites.
Even though jewelwings are voracious predators, they serve as supper to other creatures — turtles, frogs, fish, bats and birds, such as red-winged blackbirds, blue jays, flycatchers, purple martins and kingfishers.
How does one distinguish between a damselfly and a dragonfly? A few simple differences make it easy to tell them apart. Generally, damsels hold their wings folded vertically above their body, while dragons spread them horizontally when resting. Damselfly abdomens are more slender than the stout dragonflies’. Damselfly eyes are set far apart on the sides of the head, but dragonfly eyes wrap around and touch on top of the head.
Damselflies and dragonflies belong to the order Odonata, which means “toothed ones.” Many come in beautiful, iridescent color combinations. Fossil records indicate that Protodonata, the ancient ancestors of both dragons and damsels, arose about 325 million years ago. The first Odonata fossils are dated at a little older than 250 million years, which means they’ve inhabited Earth’s skies since before dinosaurs existed. I love to watch and think about these ancient, graceful creatures that add so much beauty to our woods and gardens.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
When I was little, I thought that fungi just meant the small, brown squishy mushrooms that appeared in the lawn after a wet spell — and I was squeamish about them. But that’s only a small part of the story. The hidden world of fungi runs deep within the soil like strands of microscopic silk. I imagine these tiny fungal strands as threads of life woven in a network in and around plant roots. What we see are the strange and often beautiful fruiting bodies — what we typically call a mushroom or toadstool — growing on a tree, a log, the ground, or some other food source. This visible part of a fungus produces reproductive spores.
In fact, fungi are one of Earth’s key recyclers of carbon and other materials. Along with bacteria, earthworms and other soil organisms, fungi decompose organic matter to release and recycle nutrients, feeding themselves and others through this process.
Fungi are not plants; they have no chlorophyll, leaves, roots, flowers or seeds and do not make their own food. They are primarily strands called hyphae, which secrete enzymes that break down organic matter, such as leaves, dead trees, and animal remains. Scientists currently think that land fungi split off from the animal kingdom around 1.3 million years ago — about 500 million years before plants.
Though some fungi are parasites that damage plants and other living organisms, mycorrhizal fungi form a symbiotic partnership with plants in which both benefit. The fungi obtain nutrients that the plant produces in photosynthesis. The fungal hyphae, in turn, break down organic substances releasing nitrogen, carbon, glucose and other nutrients, which they pass along to the roots of plants without parasitizing them. Many fungi also store carbon, meaning that less is released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. All winter long fungi will nourish the soil for spring growth. As I walk on these autumn days, with so many leaves underfoot, I like to think about how they will be decomposed and used again in the spring to help create next year’s new life.
Though some fungi are harmful to plants, humans and other organisms, many provide antibiotics and food in addition to forming nourishing soil. So the next time you spot a fungus and think it’s gross, remember the benefits that many fungi provide to nature, the food chain and to us. Here are a few fungal fruiting bodies that I’ve seen growing in the woods this autumn. Fungi often are difficult to identify, so I don’t know all of their names, but I appreciate their shapes and colors.
Much as I hate to admit it, (since I’m a big fan of sun and warmth), the unmistakable signs of late summer color the banks of the Snake River in Pine County, MN. After 36 summers and autumns along the river, I know them well.
The season’s first bottle gentians, ironweed, tall sunflowers, native field thistle, Joe-Pye and goldenrod add their showy flowers to black-eyed Susan’s, fleabane, monarda and coneflowers already in bloom. Riverbank grapes turn dusky blue, dogwood berries ripen to white on scarlet stems, wild rose hips, hawthorns and chokecherries hang plump and red.
It’s a productive year for the bur oaks. Acorns fall like small rocks that bounce and roll down the roof before they plunk onto the wooden decks. Chipmunks, squirrels and mice snatch up ripe hickory nuts and soon the hazelnuts will be ready. As hard as I’ve tried, I’ve never beaten the squirrels to the tasty hazelnuts.
Crickets and katydids sing in place of wood thrushes and robins. Thank goodness for cardinals that sing at dawn and dusk, and for the melodic cooing of mourning doves during the hot afternoons.
It’s all lovely, and I wouldn’t change it — perhaps stretch it out further into the year — but this late-summer beauty makes me wistful for abundant hours of sunlight, wide-open windows, warm breezes and a simple outfit of shorts and a T-shirt. Let’s hope for a long, mild autumn.
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!