Diverse Decomposers

Chicken fat mushrooms (Suillus Americanus) grow near white pine trees.

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.

Russulas often grow near oak trees.

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.

Bracket fungi and lichens grow on a log along the Kettle River.

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.

Tiny slime mold sporangia grow on a rotting log. (Slime molds are related to, but different than, fungi.)

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.

Peeling Puffballs (Lycoperdon) often grow in sandy, open areas, such as roadsides.

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.

Tiny orange Mycena toadstools growing in moss.

The underside of this Russula mushroom cap shows the spore-producing gills.

A silvery blue-capped fungus pops up through moss near aspens and pines.

An autumn toadstool grows under bur oaks next to the riverbank.

Amanitas grow in deciduous and mixed woodlands.

White polypore fungi slowly decompose a fallen tree limb.

Late Summer Along Minnesota’s Snake River

Bottle gentians (Gentians andrewsii) signal the arrival of late summer in east central Minnesota.

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.

A female long-horned bee (Melissodes, spp.) pollinates a tall sunflower (Helianthus giganteus).

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.

Our neighbor, Ed’s, puple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) attract many species of butterflies.

Native field thistles (Cirsium discolor) provide pollen and nectar to insects and nutritious seeds for birds and other creatures.

Green-headed coneflowers (Rudbeckia laciniata) provide pollen to bees later in the fall. A hover or flower fly (Toxomerus geminatus) rests on the bloom.

Bur or mossycup oaks (Quercus macrocarpa), a type of white oak, are named for the fringe that surrounds the top of the acorn cup. They are an important food source for many birds and animals.

Riverbank or frost grapes (Vitis riparia) are a native Minnesota grape that favors a moist environment and feeds many bird species.

Gray dogwood berries, or drupes (Cornus racemosa) are a favorite of thrushes, robins and other birds.

Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) mix with fleabane and field thistle in a colorful patch next to the road.

Garden Bugs: Nifty or Nasty?

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.

Japanese beetles (Popillia japonica), an invasive species, are a type of scarab beetle that destroy many plant species in North America.

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.

The convergent lady beetle (Hippodamia convergens) is a North American native that feeds on aphids, whiteflies and other pests.

Not all ladybugs are red or orange. The tiny esteemed ladybug (Hyperaspis proba) is black with yellow spots.

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.

Tiny soft-bodied aphids (Aphids nerii) suck plant juices from common milkweed. The white specks are moltings that are stuck in the honeydew.

 

This juvenile male eastern pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis) will attack any type of insect its own size or smaller, including others of the same species.

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.

Most meadowhawks (Sympetrum spp.) fly in late summer and autumn.

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.

Monarch caterpillars hatch and grow only on milkweed plants.

Adult monarchs (Danaus plexippus) and many other butterfly species nectar on common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca).

A red admiral (Vanessa atalanta) nectars on garden phlox (Phlox paniculata).

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!

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.

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.

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.