Robins and Apple Blossoms

Spotting a robin in March signaled the onset of spring to me as a child. We had a “Golden Book” titled, Birds: A Child’s First Book About Our Most Familiar Birds. It featured drawings of neatly woven nests cradling delicate eggs and portraits of familiar garden birds. Illustrations often showed robin nests built in blossoming apple trees and that image, along with the robin’s melodic songs, became synonymous with spring in my young mind.

Decades later, my husband and I bought our home in Saint Paul. Our first evening there, we sat on the back stoop beneath a beacon apple tree that’s now more than 80 years old. Two adult robins flew in and out of its leafy crown indicating the presence of a nest. A chorus of high-pitched chirps greeted the parents as the hatchlings anticipated dinner, their tiny heads stretching over the nest’s rim. During the next few weeks, we were privy to nestling squabbles, flight training, food procuring and the proper way to down a worm!

Some say that red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) are the new sign of spring’s return to Minnesota. Robins now winter in the state and I hear their sweet songs on milder midwinter days. Many birds can withstand very cold weather as long as they find enough food to fuel their metabolic rate. Gardens often feature crabapple, mountain ash, dogwood and other fruit eaten by wintering birds. City boulevard plantings include fruit trees and larger trees like hackberry. I frequently see large groups of wintering robins dart between the crowns of boulevard hackberries near Saint Catherine University in Saint Paul. Robins also eat bird feeder food during winter that they wouldn’t touch in other seasons. Many a robin has dined with the woodpeckers at our suet feeder!

Sometimes I wake up to robin song drifting in through my bedroom windows in the predawn darkness. I remember childhood mornings of their pure, lovely caroling along with the scent of lilacs, the touch of humid air and perhaps thunder rumbling in the distance from an early morning storm. These are joyful memories — and though robins often ride out the winter in Minnesota, their clear singing, and the beauty of apple blossoms, still signify spring to me.

Further Reading:

American Robin

Red-winged Blackbird

Early Spring Native Flowers: Bloodroot

One of Minnesota’s earliest native wildflowers is bloodroot, (Sanguinea canadensis). Given its name, you might expect a scarlet or crimson flower. In fact, it blooms ice-white with a sun-gold center, though some emerge light pink. They look out of place, so stark and fresh among the remains of last year’s woodland growth and garden detritus. Its name refers to the toxic red-orange sap in the rhizome or root.

Each bloom emerges wrapped in a single curling leaf like a little blanket. The leaf remains curled until the blossom withers and then unfurls into a rounded leaf with a varying number of lobes. The leaves range in color from light green to blue-green depending on the plant’s age and condition. In its natural setting, bloodroot often grows along woodland edges, which provide sun in early spring and shade when the trees leaf out. In my garden, it grows along the edge of an arbor vitae hedge and under an ash tree. With shade and regular watering, bloodroot creates a pretty ground cover that lasts all summer under deciduous trees. If they aren’t watered during summer’s hot, dry spells, bloodroot leaves just go dormant until the following spring.

Native bees, honey bees and beetles pollinate bloodroot, which also can self-pollinate. Fertilized flowers form elongated capsules that enclose spherical seeds colored black, red, or brown. Here’s what’s special about bloodroot seeds: Each produces an elaiosome, an attachment containing lipids, amino acids and other nutrients. Attracted to these nutrients, ants carry the seeds back to their nests and feed the elaiosomes to their larvae. The ants either discard the remaining seed in a separate chamber of their nest, or toss it back out onto the ground. Either way, this process, called myrmecochory, helps ensure that the bloodroot seeds are dispersed for germination. Other spring wildflowers, such as violets, trilliums, hepaticas and Canada wild ginger, also form this mutual relationship with ants.

A member of the poppy family, bloodroot is native to much of eastern North America from Nova Scotia south to Florida, west to Manitoba and south to Texas. Native Americans used the plant’s red sap to make paint and to dye clothing, leather and other items. It blooms from March to May in Minnesota woodlands and was one of the first native wildflowers that I identified in the woods at our cabin years ago. The plants in most of these photos grow in our backyard. They hold special meaning for me because they were a gift from my aunt, who grew them under her trees for decades. They remind me of how she nurtured my love for nature when I was young.

Further reading:

Ants as Seed Dispersers

Friends of the Wildflower Garden – Bloodroot

Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources – Bloodroot

Wisconsin Horticulture – Bloodroot

Spring Happens All Around Us

On a recent morning, a friend looked outside and noticed the green blush beginning on trees and bushes. She recalled a teaching colleague’s comment during playground duty years ago. The colleague, a quiet woman of few words said, joyfully, “Oh, take a look! Spring is happening right before our eyes!”

Indeed it is. Thunderstorms, rain and mild temperatures coaxed baby leaves from their snug buds. They open like tiny green roses, flawless and smooth, not yet chewed upon by insects or mammals. Even on these cloudy, gray days buds and baby leaves paint the landscape in soft pastel greens and yellows. Don’t miss their fleeting, fragile beauty! They’ll quickly mature to full size and summer’s cool greens.

Maple Flowers

silvermapleflower1

In Minnesota, native maple trees typically flower before bees and other pollinators are active.

Spring’s earliest flowers are popping open: gauzy crocus clusters, squill — Siberian and striped — and snowdrops that have bloomed through snow, cold and high winds for a month. They are lovely, these Eurasian transplants that paint the earth with pockets of bright color. Our native blooms are more hidden and less showy, yet are beautiful in their unflowerlike forms.

Look up at the maple trees. Easy to miss high overhead, these blossoms are small, muted and less recognizable as flowers. Each emerges from a scarlet bud coat and glitters with golden, translucent filaments tipped in auburn pollen. They remind me of minute, single-celled creatures that we might see in a drop of water under a microscope, or of the tiny squiggly animals living on a coral reef — beauty suspended in air rather than water.

silvermaplecaron

Male flowers of the silver maple (Acer saccharinum) are packed with pollen for wind dispersal.

 

The female flowers of red maples (Acer rubrum) remind me of tiny coral reef creatures.

Oh, and even if we don’t notice the flowers overhead, if you are allergic to tree pollen, your “nose knows” that maples are blooming! Why do they disperse so much pollen? In most years, maples and a few other trees bloom before native bees and honey bees are active. The early-flowering trees depend on indirect wind pollination. Male flowers produce copious pollen to successfully fertilize female flowers on other maples.

Black Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

An eastern tiger swallowtail black form female nectars on nepeta ‘Walker’s low.’

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.

Eastern tiger swallowtail males are always yellow with black stripes and lack the wash of blue on the hind wings.

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.

The female’s underwings are marked with bright orange spots and light blue scales.

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.

Violets Aren’t Always Violet!

As a youngster, I thought violets should be just one color: the shade of Crayola violet in my crayon box. In fact, violet flowers aren’t always violet! Many are blue, shades of purple, white and even yellow. The native common violet, or wooly blue violet, grows in almost every Minnesota county and in most of the eastern United States and Canada. It’s what many of us picture when we think “violet” (excluding African violets, which are a different plant family altogether).

The common violet or wooly violet (Viola sororia) blooms from April to June in the eastern United States and Canada.

Violets are a sure sign of spring in Minnesota and bloom from April to June. You’ll often find them in woodlands, thickets, gardens, lawns, along roadsides and even growing in sidewalk cracks. Individual species of violets can be tricky to identify and botanists disagree on how to classify them. Many of the backyard and roadside violets are common violets (Viola sororia), which may be blue, purple or white. The downy yellow violet (Viola pubescens) is also common in most Minnesota counties. It differs from many violets in that the flower stem arises from the leaf axil instead of growing separately from the corm.

The white form of the common violet clearly shows the pollinator “honey guides” on the bottom petal.

This violet came from my mom’s garden. I’d never seen violets this shade and loved them.

The downy yellow violet’s (Viola pubescens) stems and undersides of leaves are covered in soft, downy hair.

A typical native violet has heart-shaped or circular leaves with rounded teeth. In most species, the flower stem grows directly from the corm, which is similar to a bulb. Each leafless stem holds a single five-petaled flower. The purple-veined area on the lower petal is a nectar guide for pollinators. Bees see ultraviolet light and scientists think that the enhanced pattern visible to their eyes helps lead them to the nectar. In early May, typical pollinators are mason bees, tiny sweat bees and skipper butterflies. But, because the early spring weather can be cold and pollinators may be inactive, violets produce a second type of flower called a cleistogamous flower that doesn’t open. It self-pollinates and forms a seed capsule that ripens, bursts and ejects small brown seeds away from the plant. These flowers don’t form until after the trees leaf out. Look for them underneath violet plants later in the summer.

The violet plant is an important host for the caterpillars of many species of fritillary butterflies. Just as monarch larvae feed solely on milkweed plants, most fritillary caterpillars feed only on violets. Humans can eat violet blossoms, but not the rest of the plant, which is toxic. The blossoms provide vitamins A and C. In earlier times, they were used to make a simple, sweet jelly that’s also beautiful. To learn how to make violet jelly, and about other ways the flowers were used, visit PBS Wisconsin’s “The Wisconsin Gardener” for a brief, interesting interview.

Many fritillary caterpillars feed only on violets. This adult great-spangled fritillary (Speyeria cybele)  nectars on pink bergamot.

Violets sometimes form patches, especially in a garden or lawn. They are a good ground cover in shady places where grass does’t grow well. If you have too many growing for your liking, they are easy to remove. Just make sure that you pull out the entire root — and please consider leaving a few for early pollinators and for fritillary caterpillars to eat!

Early Spring Native Flowers: Hepatica

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 native, hepatica, buds and opens.

Round-lobed hepatica (Hepatica nobilis) blooms range from white to purple in color.

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.

Hepatica’s fuzzy flower stalks slowly unfurl to reveal the delicate flowers.

 

Hepatica leaves are three-lobed. The previous year’s leaves are often brownish-red or bronze and reminded earlier people of the human liver. (Hepatica is from the Greek word for liver.)

 

New green leaves grow beneath the flowers and will last all season.

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. 

As the bloodroot blossoms (Sanguinaria canadensis) wilt, the leaves unfold and the seed pods begin to swell.

 

A queen bumble bee (Bombus bimaculatus) hovers above glory-of-the-snow (Chionodoxa luciliae) blossoms.

 

A hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus), one of the most ethereal songsters I’ve heard, rests on its journey to northern Minnesota and Canada.

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!

 

 

Spring: Inconsistent as Usual

Striped squill (Puschkinia scilloides), Siberian squill (Scilla siberica) and crocus bloom before last week’s snowstorm.

Spring in Minnesota is as fitful as ever — in other words, it’s one of the few things that remains normal during the pandemic. A week ago, Saturday was sunny and 70 degrees. Honey bees explored the squill patch and the first bloodroot blossoms unfurled white and gold. Twelve hours later, a cold front settled over the state. More than five inches of heavy, wet snow buried the garden and coated every bud, twig and trunk. Fox sparrows scratched and dug under the garden hedge sending snow, leaves and dirt flying behind them. A chubby American robin plucked the few remaining crabapples from a small tree. When the air warmed above freezing midweek, a few flowers were wilted and tinged with brown, but those that still had a covering of snow perked right up.

Sticky snow transformed a greening world back to winter black and white.

Traces of snow linger in the shady, northern corners of the yard, but most areas look like spring again — for now. While almost all of Minnesota’s record-breaking April snowstorms have occurred mid-month or earlier, that’s not always been true. Remember that April 29-30 storm in 1984? It dumped 9.7 inches of snow on the Twin Cities to close out the month. It’s all part of a typical Minnesota spring. Here’s a look at what’s growing in the backyard now that the snow has melted.

Bright green moss and its spore capsules are a refreshing sight after the snow.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) is one of the earliest spring wildflowers to bloom in Minnesota. Each flower is wrapped in a single leaf before opening.

A honey bee (Apis mellifera) in the Siberian squill is the first one I spotted this year.

A northern magnolia (Magnolia stellata) bud, slightly frostbitten, unfurls on a milder day.

Baby leaves and bud clusters of Canada cherry (Prunus virginiana).

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.