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.
It’s easy to focus on the “can’t miss” colors of autumn’s oaks and maples. Orange and red dominate October’s landscape. But, look more closely: Yellow’s quiet beauty slowly swells from a few bright pockets of heart-shaped basswood leaves, to entire bluff-sides wrapped in lemon, butter and gold of birch, cottonwood, maple and hickory. Woods that were deeply shadowed and cool green just a few days ago, now glow on a sunny afternoon. The air smells good — earth, ripe seeds and the slightly tangy scent of aging leaves — all part of autumn’s final act before winter spreads its monochrome blanket.
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:
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.
I began cutting back our garden on one of the few warm days before last week’s hard frost. It was sunny and windy. Yellow maple and apple leaves sailed through the yard. Blue jays called raucously. Chimpmunks and squirrels ate nuts and stashed others for the winter. A few flowers still bloomed, though most now sported full seed heads. Among the blooms were the last native bees and butterflies of autumn. Here are a few of late October’s simple gifts:
Cold, rainy, dark. These adjectives capture the weather and mood of the past three weeks here in Saint Paul, Minnesota. No blue October skies and warm afternoons so far, and none in sight, according to the National Weather Service. I hear lots of complaints from people to the tune of, “My grass is lush green, but I am so crabby;” or, “I just want to read and sleep all day;” or, a straightforward “I am so depressed!”
I don’t like it either and I understand these sentiments. Most of all, I miss gardening and walking outside. As dank as it is, my husband and I have walked in the rain a few times and I gardened in it for a half hour last Sunday. I feel happier and more energetic after I go out to garden or walk, even though I get wet. I’ve noticed others doing the same — students at morning recess in the mist, gardeners cutting back their spent plants, even a few people trying to mow saturated lawns in the persistent drizzle.
When we walked yesterday, I was struck by the contrast between the heavy sky and the splotches of color lighting up the gray sidewalks — maple, birch and ash leaves — their hues more vivd for being wet. The rain and strong winds tore down the leaves prematurely, but I am grateful for the beauty and glow of their colors on these gloomy days.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.