Summer Solstice

The first wild rose (Rosa blanda) of early summer.

It is the season of light in the North. Earth bows its northern pole to the sun extending daylight to almost sixteen hours — eight more since winter solstice last December. Spring flowers are finished blooming, trees are fully covered in lush green leaves, and swelling buds on many perennials will open soon. Fireflies glow in the night. During the day, delicate lacewings, damselflies and dragonflies patrol the garden for pests. I spotted my first monarch of the season a couple of weeks ago when it visited our milkweed patch, which is almost ready to bloom.

Solstice was mild and clear with a high of 76℉. I enjoyed the company of good friends for lunch at an outdoor restaurant. Later, I sat in our garden to soak up the late-afternoon sun’s warmth, to listen to the robins sing and to toast the long summer ahead.

A monarch (Danaus plexippus) seeks nectar among the buds of swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata).

Lacewings (Chrysoperla carnea) eat aphids, mites and other garden pests.

An eastern forktail (Ischnura verticalis) catches late-evening sun in the garden.

A bumble bee nectars in a wild geranium blossom (Geranium maculatum).

Sundrops (Oenothera fruticosa) belong to the evening primrose family.

‘Husker red’ beard tongue (Penstemon digitalis) has maroon stems and leaves.

Monarda ‘Jacob Cline’ begins to open.

Red clover (Trifolium pratense) is a favorite of bumble bees.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) buds will soon open to provide nectar to monarchs and many other insects.

September Days

Woodland sunflowers (Helianthus divaricatus).

Woodland sunflowers (Helianthus divaricatus).

The morning’s first light dawns purple, builds to a soft pink, then strawberry red. Crickets and other night creatures punctuate the mild air; the birds are quiet. As the sun climbs the eastern horizon, its light flares and glows green in the tops of river birches, maples and cottonwoods. There is only a hint of autumn color in the trees, but the wildflowers are dominated by gold — the gold of woodland sunflowers, goldenrod, a few butter and eggs. The first asters, purple and white, softly accent the gold. In the coolness of the morning, voices of early walkers rise from the sidewalk. “A beautiful morning for a walk!” women call in greeting to each other.

Plumes of Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) surround a pond.

Plumes of Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) surround a pond.

Butter and eggs, or common toadflax (Linaria vulgaris Mill) was introduced by European settlers in the 1800s. Unfortunately, its bright flowers are considered invasive.

Butter and eggs, (Linaria vulgaris Mill) was introduced by European settlers in the 1800s. Its bright flowers are now considered invasive.

Native heath asters (Symphotrichum ericoides) are at their peak bloom now.

Native heath asters (Symphotrichum ericoides) are at their peak bloom now.

Later, in the afternoon, I walk the hilly paths. The sun is warm, an easterly breeze is mild. Barn swallows twitter overhead, swooping and soaring in pursuit of small insects. At a nearby pond, a dozen Canada geese perch on a half-submerged snag and a green heron alights briefly at the tip top of a skeletal maple. Close to the ground, small butterflies flutter across the wildflowers bordering the pond.

A red admiral (Vanessa atalanta) sips nectar from New England asters (Symphotrichum novae-anglica).

A red admiral (Vanessa atalanta) sips nectar from New England asters (Symphotrichum novae-anglica).

I sit in the sun to breathe in the peaceful scene and soak up the sunlight. Its radiant heat soothes and relaxes. I miss it so much during the long winter. I wish these late-summer afternoons would never end. I am grateful to be outside surrounded by this abundance of life.

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The Dove’s Call

A mated pair of doves rest on the roof in the late afternoon sun.

A mated pair of mourning doves rests on a roof in the late afternoon sun.

The mourning dove’s (Zenaida macroura) call is a wild, haunting sound that complements the whistle of its wings. In mid-August, doves coo softly in the cool of early morning and in the sultry late-afternoon heat.

People react quite differently to the mourning dove’s call. A work colleague who grew up on a farm found the cooing to be so sad that her family removed any nests that were close to their farmhouse.

To our young son, who was born with a bilateral sensorineural hearing loss, discovering a dove’s sounds was a time of wonder. We returned home from work and daycare, one spring evening, and startled a dove in the backyard. The forceful whistle of its wings as it flew skyward was one of the first sounds he heard with his new hearing aids. He also loved their sweet call; if the doves quieted, he would spot one on the roof and say to it, “Don’t be shy little dove. Will you sing for me again, please?”

Mourning doves are warm buff to soft gray in color with black speckles on the wings.

Mourning doves are warm buff to soft gray in color with black speckles on their wings.

I love the mourning dove’s call; I find it soothing and relaxing. It brings memories of steamy summer afternoons when I was growing up. We’d imitate their calls and try to spot them in the majestic elms that shaded Saint Paul’s streets. To find a dove’s nest woven in the boughs of a small spruce tree was pure delight. How innocent they looked with their large, dark eyes and bespeckled wings, nestled on a clutch of bright white eggs. How excited we were to experience this tiny bit of nature so close to home.

Garden Damsels and Dragons

A thread-slender eastern forktail (Ishnura verticalis) damsel fly.

A thread-slender eastern forktail (Ischnura verticalis) damsel fly.

The early morning garden is a place of shadows and peace. Cardinals, goldfinches, mourning doves and house wrens ring out their song in neighborhood trees. Already, bumblebees work the flowers — bluebells, bee balm, hyssop and milkweed — buzzing softly.  Almost camouflaged in the deep green shadows, a tiny damselfly perches atop a milkweed leaf. An eastern forktail (Ischnura verticalis), its slender body, less than an inch long, is mint green, blue and black. The wings are folded over its back in damselfly style.

Across the backyard, a much larger dragonfly relative hangs from the edge of a hosta leaf, wings held away from its body horizontally. It is a green darner (Anax junius), one of the largest dragonflies in the world at three inches in length and with a wingspan of more than four inches. Its spring-green head and thorax hide it among the hosta. It “wing-whirs”, or rapidly vibrates its wings to warm up its flight muscles — and that movement catches my eye and reveals its presence.

A common green darner (Anax junius) is one of the largest dragonflies.

A common green darner (Anax junius) is one of the largest surviving dragonflies.

Damselflies and dragonflies are members of the order Odonata, which means “toothed ones”. Unlike the peaceable bumblebees, they are fierce predators, hunting for small insects in the garden and eating many pests. Odonata are descended from some of Earth’s most ancient creatures. Fossils of ancient dragonfly ancestors (Protodonata) date back 325 million years. Scientists believe that bees evolved more recently — about 120 million years ago; the oldest bee fossil discovered so far is about 100 million years old. Both insect families contribute to a healthy garden.

 

Michigan and Turk’s Cap Lily

Michigan lily (Lilium michiganense) growing near the Snake River in east central Minnesota.

Michigan lily (Lilium michiganense) growing near the Snake River in east central Minnesota.

They are a gift of wet years, often not blooming in summers of little rainfall. Native to eastern North America, the Michigan lily’s (Lilium michiganense) delicate tepals curve up and backward, setting it apart from most other native lilies. They range in color from light orange to red-orange and are speckled with purple. The closely related Turk’s cap lily (Lilium superbum) is almost identical in appearance. Turk’s caps can sometimes be distinguished by the presence of a green star in the flower’s throat, and anthers longer than 1/2 inch that are colored magenta or darker.  It is native to areas south of Minnesota, but has been widely introduced here. Both lilies grow from a bulb, reach a height of four to seven feet, and form thin, tiny seeds in a pod.

When our son was little, one of the first things he did when we arrived at our cabin was to check all of the damp spots where we’d found Michigan lilies in previous years. They like “wet feet” and grow in moist right-of-ways, near drainage ditches, and edges of woodlands along the Snake River and other streams. He delighted in finding them, and I was excited to find many in bloom last week.

The tepals curve up and back toward the base of the flower.

The tepals curve up and back toward the base of the flower.

Hummingbirds, sphinx moths and butterflies, such as monarchs and fritillaries, are attracted to the reddish blooms.  I’m attracted to them for a different reason. I think of light, joy and life when I see them glow so deeply in the morning sun. Both types of lily are becoming more uncommon in the wild due to roadside mowing and cultivation. If you spot these lilies growing on your property, please let them stand undisturbed until the plants become dormant in the fall.

Thoughts on a Butterfly

Sun glows on the wings of a crescent butterfly (Phyciodes).

Sun glows on the wings of a crescent butterfly (Phyciodes).

I spotted a small orange-and-black butterfly in a patch of white clover. Most butterflies rarely sit for more than a few seconds; this one was an avid sunbather, fully opening its dark-spotted wings and resting on a clover bloom for several minutes. Its wing pattern indicated it was a type of crescent butterfly.

Because of their similar appearance and habitat, crescents challenge us to identify them correctly, and this could have been either a pearl or northern crescent. Adults of both species nectar on white clover, asters, thistles and dogbane. Their brown, spiky caterpillars feed primarily on the leaves of asters, and they overwinter to become next spring’s first generation to take flight.

Look closely at the photos and you’ll see the crescent’s worn, tattered wing — evidence that it’s no newbie, has seen some extended flight time, has already lived a good portion of its life. And still, though it shows some wear and tear, it remains beautiful even as it ages and lives out its brief days.

Tattered butterfly wings may indicate a close call with a predator, or advancing old age.

Tattered butterfly wings may indicate a close call with a predator or advancing age.

I think of the recent death of my mother-in-law, Mary, and of my friend, Cathy, last January. I watched them complete their lives, I held their hands, hoped they could hear my prayers and words of comfort. I wonder about them often, and deeply hope that, as the simple brown caterpillar morphed into a creature of light and air, they too have transformed into something lovely and eternal.

Rainy Evening Gift

The backyard was lush and green after the week’s heavy rain. The air felt chilly and damp as I picked up windfalls from our beacon apple tree.  Soaked, bedraggled bumble bees and long-horned bees clung to Joe-Pye blossoms and the undersides of leaves.  Only a few crickets chirped in the unusually cool August evening air.  As I reached into the garden to pull some weeds, I felt a fluttering against my fingers and heard the slightest rustle of wings.  Barely grasping my fingertips was a beautiful green dragonfly —a common green darner.  Its aqua-green thorax and dark maroon abdomen hinted that it was probably a female or juvenile.  I thought it was injured, or perhaps dying. Gently, I held my hand next to some sedum plants.  The dragonfly struggled onto the flower buds and I left it for the night.

Common Green Darner (Anax Junius).

Common Green Darner (Anax junius).

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In the morning, the green darner was gone.  I found no scattered wings or chitin, no other remains in the garden to indicate that it had been eaten. I believe that the sun’s warmth revived it.  Since then, I’ve glimpsed a large dragonfly zooming over the garden on several different days; perhaps it is the same one. I hope that it lives to make the long migration flight south to the Gulf Cost in September.