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 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.

 

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail Butterflies

A female eastern tiger swallowtail – black form (Papilio glaucus) nectars on an ironweed flower.

It was an unexpected gift on an August afternoon: A black eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly, its wings faded and worn, even tattered in places, showing its age.  It settled in for a long drink of nectar from an ironweed flower on the banks of the Snake River. Though we’re more likely to see the yellow form of the tiger swallowtail in the North, the black form isn’t rare or even uncommon — but it only occurs in females. The butterfly’s name refers to the long projections on its tail, which resemble a barn swallow’s tail.

An eastern tiger swallowtail – yellow form nectars on a monarda blossom.

In the northern United States, eastern tiger swallowtails typically fly from mid-May to late August or September. They usually have two broods per summer, and the young of the second group overwinter as chrysalids to emerge the following May. The caterpillars are bright green with two blue eye spots. (They turn brown when ready to form a chrysalis.) They mainly feed on the leaves of trees such as wild cherry, chokecherry, basswood, cottonwood, ash, willow and maple. Adults nectar on many types of flowers, but prefer wild cherry and lilac in spring, Joe-Pye weed and milkweed during the summer.

The name swallowtail comes from the long tail projections that resemble a barn swallow’s tail.

The ironweed on which I spotted it belongs to the Composite family, which also includes coneflowers, sunflowers, daisies, goldenrod, Joe-Pye weed, asters and others. Ironweed is a native perennial, prefers full sun and often grows near marshes, along riverbanks, edges of moist fields, and wet prairies. It’s typically 4-to-6 feet tall and its violet-colored flower clusters are often visited by bumblebees. The black tiger swallowtails seem attracted to ironweed and I’ve seen them on the blossoms in past years, too. I enjoy seeing both forms of the butterfly.

Ironweed (Vernonia fasciculata) grows on the banks of the Snake River in Pine County, Minnesota.

 

Lake Michigan Walk

In August, many wildflowers begin to bloom in the Upper Midwest. Bees, wasps, moths and butterflies visit them for nectar and pollen. While in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, last weekend, we walked along Lake Michigan to enjoy the warm sun, gentle breeze and flowers both native and non-native that grace the shoreline. Among the blooms were chicory, Queen Anne’s lace, everlasting pea, goldenrod, sweet clover, gray-headed coneflower, bouncing Bet, red clover, Black-eyed Susan, monarda and lesser burdock. (If you look closely, you’ll spot a few pollinators, too.)

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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

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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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.

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.