Awakening Spring

Winter hangs on stubbornly this year. Yet, in spite of lingering snow falls and temps hovering in the low 30s, the natural world slowly awakens. During the night I heard a flock of tundra swans call to each other as they migrated north. Robins carol and cardinals sing in the early morning darkness. Later in the day, dark-eyed juncos trill as they search the sunny exposed parts of our garden for last year’s seeds. The tiny birds have been daily visitors since October and soon will depart for their summer home in Canada.

Dark-eyed juncos (Junco hyemalis) will soon migrate to their breeding territories in Canada.

Ivory-petaled snowdrops are ready to bloom.The first Siberian squill bulbs poked through the cold, wet soil of our back garden at the same time as the tiny, sharp leaves of iris. Silver maple buds glow rosy and round in the late afternoon sunlight and the soft, furry catkins of quaking aspen have emerged.

A snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) blossoms in a sunny spot beneath a spruce tree.

Quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) flowers begin to emerge.

I want this slow showing of spring to speed up, but it should not be hurried. Soon enough I will want the season to slow down — it all happens in such a rush once it gains momentum in May, and hurdles toward blossoming, fruiting, and autumn once again. I have learned that, as with all of life’s special times, it is better to wait for, notice and welcome each change; to savor the whole unfolding of new life.

Crocus chrysanthus ‘ladykiller’ usually bloom in April.

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

Blooming Crabs

Whatever crabapples lack in flavor, the trees make up for in year-round beauty. In early May, they scent the air with an aroma softer than lilacs or peonies. The blossoms range from bright white to pink to deep red. Many species show buds of one color and open to reveal a different hued blossom. The fruit or pomme varies in color, too, from deep red to orange and yellow. Many crabs hold their fruit through the winter, or until eaten by wildlife.

Why is such a lovely tree named a crab? Late Middle English crab or crabbe meant “fruit of the wild apple” possibly from the similar Swedish word, krabbäpple. It also connoted the sour or bitterness of the fruit. Though crabapples are bitter to the human palate, the fruit is an important source of nourishment to many mammals and birds during the winter. In the spring, native bees, such as orchard bees, collect pollen. Early butterflies drink the nectar and later in the season, the leaves provide food for caterpillars.

Scientists believe that all domestic apples originated in Kazakhstan’s mountains. But, there are three species of “wild,” or crabapples, indigenous to North America. Many others were brought here by immigrants from Europe and Asia. How does one distinguish between the two types of apples? A general rule is that wild apples (crabs) are two inches in circumference or smaller and domesticated apples are larger than two inches. Like common or domesticated apples, crabs are members of the rose family and belong to the genus ‘Malus’. Crabapple jelly is delicious if you don’t mind a little tartness! But whether or not you like the fruit, enjoy the beauty of their blossoms this spring!


May Snow

Heavy, wet snowflakes mix with apple blossoms on the first day of May in Saint Paul, MN.

It was a good rain, light-to-steady over several hours, the kind that soaks deeply into the soil and awakens late-sleeping perennials in the spring. Mid-afternoon, though the calendar showed May 1st, big, heavy snowflakes fell like icy polka dots. The blend of apple blossoms and sloppy, wet snow was a sly reminder that, in spite of increasing warmth and longer days, winter is never truly far away from those who live in the north!

The snow didn’t injure the blossoms of this more than 70-year-old Beacon apple tree, a hardy tree bred for Minnesota springs.

Prairie Smoke

Prairie smoke (Geum triflorum) showing five dark pink outer petals covering five white inner ones.

Prairie smoke (Geum triflorum) sports five dark pink outer petals over five white inner ones.

The Midwestern prairies are famous for their large, showy flowering plants like purple coneflowers and black-eyed Susans. But, there are lovely smaller ones, too. Prairie smoke (Geum triflorum) is an interesting one that grows in early spring.

Fern-like, hairy foliage often stays green all winter and begins gowing in early spring.

Fern-like, hairy foliage often stays green all winter and begins growing in early spring.

Each spring, the melting snow uncovers a green rosette of hairy, fern-like leaves often tinged with burgundy. The rosette begins to grow, and a few weeks later, one or more stalks appear in the center of the rosette. Each carries a small group, or umbel, of three flowers. The five outer petals are pink-to-reddish colored and tightly cover five white petals forming a bell-like shape. Because the small flowers barely open, they are primarily pollinated by bumble bees, which are burly enough to push inside.

Prairie smoke seed plumes.

Prairie smoke seed plumes on last year’s plants.

After several weeks, the flowers turn upward and form small, one-seeded fruit that are attached to long styles covered with silky hair. The wispy appearance of the fruit led to the colorful names of prairie smoke and old man’s whiskers.

Another seed plume of prairie smoke or old man's whiskers.

Another seed plume of prairie smoke or old man’s whiskers.

In its native habitat, prairie smoke prefers sunny, dry soil that is rocky or sandy. In our garden, it’s happy growing near the top of a limestone wall where it receives direct sun and has good drainage.

Common Snowdrops

Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) often bloom in the snow, but this year the snow melted weeks ago.

Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) often bloom in the snow, but this year the snow melted weeks ago.

Every spring I hunt for some fresh green glowing against the snow-covered or brown landscape, depending on the year. Patches of moss, which often remain green under the snow, are refreshing, but the first snowdrops that push through the soil and bloom speak of the awakening earth.  Last Saturday, a sunny, warm afternoon when cardinals sang and a pair of great-horned owls hooted softly to each other, I found a lovely patch of snowdrops blooming in my sister, Theresa’s, shade garden.

Common snowdrops have three white outer tepals and three smaller inner tepals that are white and green.

Common snowdrop blossoms have three white outer tepals and three smaller inner tepals that are white and green.

Snowdrops are small bulbs that grow and bloom right through the snow.  This year’s early warmth melted the snow, so the tiny flowers stand out in contrast to autumn’s brown leaves that still cover the soil. The Latin name, Galanthus nivalis, roughly translates as “snowy milk flower.” Sources that I read say that the name refers to the blossoms looking like drops of snow or milk.  Snowdrops are native to Europe and will grow reliably in USDA zones 3 – 7.

Early Spring Serenade

A male northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) sings from his springtime perch .

A male northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) sings from his springtime perch.

I like the silence of frosty mornings, but I also miss the music of birds during the winter. Most mornings for the past three weeks, our resident cardinal has greeted the sunrise — cloudy or clear — with song. At first he sang one short burst of bright song. Over the next week, it grew to several minutes of song at dawn and another round later in the morning. Basking in Tuesday’s sunshine and 70°, he sang many times during the day. Later that same day, a mourning dove cooed in a spruce tree, chickadees added their lovely two-note calls, and an American robin joined the serenade with its caroling. However, all went silent when a Cooper’s hawk sailed across the backyard and into my neighbor’s silver maple!

Why do birds sing more frequently in the spring? There’s still much to learn, but the thinking is that the increase in daylight triggers a bird’s thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH). TSH steps up the production of sex hormones to prepare birds for the mating season. A big part of successful reproduction is attracting a mate and maintaining a breeding territory — birdsong plays a major role in both activities.

The four songsters mentioned above were year-round residents in the Twin Cities this past winter.  Soon migrants, such as warblers, red-winged blackbirds, catbirds and others will return to add their harmony to the chorus. In fact, I saw my first red-winged blackbird of the season perched on a cattail in a small pond yesterday. Regardless of its purpose, the return of beautiful birdsong is one of spring’s finest gifts.

Wild Columbine

The first spring that we lived in our home, a large patch of wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) bloomed outside the back porch. The red-orange and yellow blooms of wild columbine dominate woodlands and rocky areas of Minnesota and eastern North America in early June.  Also called Canada columbine, or eastern red columbine, these native wild flowers are a favorite source of nectar for hummingbirds and bees.

Canada columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) is native to eastern North America.

Canada columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) is native to eastern North America.

The entire patch in our yard was native Canada columbine.  That summer, I planted a small area of blue and white Colorado blue columbine (Aquilegia caerula), native to the western United States, in a different section of the yard.

Over time, nature and the bees produced lovely hybrid flowers, ranging from dark purple, to violet, a cranberry color, and pale, lemony pink.  Individual columbine do not live a long time, so the colorful hybrids usually last three or four years.  However, Canada columbine produce dozens of shiny black seeds that keep the original native wildflower growing abundantly.  The seeds often take root in small cracks in our stone garden wall, similar to the rocky habitat they favor in nature.  But they also pop up in many different spots around the backyard in both sun and shade.

A cranberry-hued hybrid columbine thanks to the bees.

A cranberry-hued hybrid columbine — thanks to the bees.

A lavender hybrid of Canada columbine and Rocky Mountain columbine.

A violet hybrid of Canada columbine and Colorado blue columbine.

The scientific and common names for this plant reflect the blossom in two different ways.  Aquilegia, from the Latin term for eagle, represents the flower as the talons of an eagle.  I like the common name columbine, which is derived from Columba, the Latin for dove.  Each section of the flower looks like the outline of a dove — from its tiny head, down through the oblong body and pointed tail.  The entire blossom resembles a group of five doves.

The "five doves" form the blossom and give columbine its common name.

The “five doves” form the blossom and give columbine its common name.

Whether you see the eagle or the dove, columbine is a beautiful spring wild flower and an important source of nectar for insects and hummingbirds.  It also adapts well to gardens, especially rock and wall gardens.  The colorful flower, scalloped foliage and large seed pods make it an interesting plant for much of the spring and summer.

The sticky green seed pod will ripen an split open to reveal shiny black seeds.

The sticky green seed pod will ripen and split open to release shiny black seeds.

Our “Biodiverse” Lawn

Our “lawn” would be outlawed in most of the Twin Cities’ tonier suburbs.  But living in the city allows for a little more variety.  Twenty years ago we sodded our yard after building an addition.  The grass was perfect — pure, uniform blades of healthy green.  We kept it that way for a couple of years, then quit using chemicals when our son was old enough to play in the yard.

First a few common violets dotted the grass with their subtle, delicate blooms.  Then dandelions showed their bright heads —miniature globes of sunshine that blossomed into balls of fluff.  Our son loved to blow the fluff, watch the seeds dance on the breeze and settle into the grass (to grow the following spring).

Canada violets and common blue violets grow in our backyard.

White clover (Trifolium repens), Canada violets (Viola canadensis) and common blue violets (Viola sororia) grow in our backyard lawn.

Canada violets (Viola canadensis) and dandelions (Taraxacum officinale).

Canada violets (Viola canadensis) and dandelions (Taraxacum officinale).

Over the years, seeds from garden Siberian squill and striped squill spilled out into the lawn during heavy rains.  They popped up in all parts of the backyard along with three other species of violets.  These spring blooms are lovely and welcome, but the plantain, chickweed and crabgrass that appear later in the summer?  Not so much.

Siberian squill bloom in the grass in April, but quickly disappear for the rest of the growing season.

Siberian squill (Scilla siberica) bloom in the grass in April, but quickly disappear for the rest of the growing season.

One afternoon our neighbor, Steve, an environmental engineer, stopped to chat while I was digging out dandelions.  I bemoaned the state of our lawn.  Steve looked at it for a minute, then said that he thinks of it as a biodiverse lawn.  The variety of blooms, though they are “weeds” in the eyes of most people, provide a great source of nectar to native bees and other pollinators.  The insects and worms provide food for birds, chipmunks and many small critters.  In comparison, Steve said, our former uniform lawn was a “dead zone” with little life beyond the non-native grass.

I still miss our perfect lawn when I look at the lush, tidy, green grass on our block, and every summer I’m tempted to use chemicals to restore ours.  But, I ignore that urge and instead, we mow the “grass” down to a short patch of green turf that is alive with birds, insects and other creatures — and that also looks  acceptable to our neighbors!