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 in Pine County, MN, 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.

Winter Solstice

grayskies:geese

It hasn’t seemed like winter this December; more like a mild November with moody skies, soaking rains and even a few thunderstorms. What little snow fell, melted into the unfrozen ground. But the sun tells the truth as it rides low on the southern horizon. I always look at winter solstice (10:48 p.m. CST on December 21) as a milestone achieved: We’ve reached the time of peak darkness for the winter. And happily, though sunrise is still getting later, sunset began to lengthen on December 10th!  We celebrate solstice with extra candles on the dinner table, a glass of wine, and Celtic Christmas music.  

I look for the understated, sometimes harsh beauty of winter, and I like the extra hours of moon-watching. Yet, I impatiently wait for the seeds, bulbs, perennials and tiny creatures that rest in the dark earth to reawaken. In the meantime, I will try to appreciate the slate skies and spent plants that add their own stark loveliness to the winter months.

The mid-December moon is often visible during the day.

The mid-December moon is often visible during the day.

Joe-Pye seedheads.

Joe-Pye weed (Eutrochium dubium) seedheads.

Flame grass seed heads.

Flame grass (Miscanthus sinensis ‘purpurascens’) seed heads and leaves.

Fluffy goldenrod seeds.

Fluffy, soft goldenrod (Solidago) seeds.

A few seeds still cling to the soft, empty cup of a milkweed pod.

A few seeds still cling to the soft, empty cup of a milkweed pod (Aesclepias syriaca).

August’s Beauty

August’s warm, sunny days hum with insect activity.  Many kinds of bees and wasps, butterflies and grasshoppers inhabit the colorful swaths of wildflowers and grasses along country roads.  The buzzing of bees is soft against the louder trills and whirs of crickets, grasshoppers and gray tree frogs.  Scents of sweet clover and grass fill the air. Here is a sampling of the beauty my husband and I enjoyed when we walked along the road near our cabin on the Snake River in Pine County, MN, last weekend.

Great spangled frilillary on native monarda.

Great spangled frilillary (Speyeria cybele) on native monarda.

Woodland sunflowers grow in shadier patches along the road.

Woodland sunflowers (Helianthus divaricatus) grow in dappled sun along the road.

Jewelweed or spotted touch-me-not grows in moist, sunny spots.

Spotted jewelweed or spotted touch-me-not (Impatiens capensis).

Native big bluestem is also called turkey foot grass due to the shape of the seed heads.

Native big bluestem (Andropogon gerardi) is also called turkeyfoot grass due to the shape of its seed heads.

This common wood-nymph's bright eyespot caught my attention.

This common wood-nymph’s (Cercyonis pegala) bright eyespot caught my attention.

Non-native rabbit-clover is a low-growing plant that provides color along dusty country roads.

Non-native rabbit-clover (Trifolium arvense) is a low-growing plant that provides color along dusty country roads.

 

The native field thistle is a favorite of bees and butterflies.

The native field thistle (Cirsium discolor) is a favorite of bees and butterflies.

The field thistle's "down" is used by American goldfinches to line its nest and the seeds are a favorite goldfinch food.

Field thistle’s “down” is used by the American goldfinch to line its nest and the seeds are a favorite goldfinch food.

A white-faced meadowhawk watches for prey.

A white-faced meadowhawk (Sympetrum obtrusum) watches for prey.

Swamp or blue vervain prefers moist, loamy soil and lots of sun.

Swamp or blue vervain (Verbena hastata) prefers moist, loamy soil and lots of sun.

Brown-eyed Susan's and a few early-blooming asters.

Black-eyed Susan’s (Rudbeckia subtomentosa) or sweet coneflower and a few early-blooming asters.

Priarie or western ironweed (Vernonia fasiculata).

Priarie or western ironweed (Vernonia fasciculata).

Hog peanut is a member of the pea family. (More to come in a later post.)

Hog peanut (Amphicarpaea bracteata) is a member of the pea family.

Eastern-tailed blue (Cupido comyntas)

Eastern-tailed blue (Cupido comyntas).

European bull thistle with bumble bee.

European bull thistle (Cirsium vulgare) with bumble bee.

First buds of sweet Joe-Pye begin to open.

First buds of sweet Joe-Pye (Eutrochium purpureum) begin to open.

Male American redstart warbler.

Male American redstart warbler (Setophaga ruticilla).

Harebells

Harebells growing on the banks of the Snake River in east central Minnesota.

Harebells grow on the bank of the Snake River in east central Minnesota.

I first saw harebell flowers as a young teen hiking the north shore of Lake Superior in Minnesota.  They grew out of a tiny crevice in the lichen-covered basalt slabs along the lake, and the delicate blossoms mirrored the violet-blue water on that sunny midsummer day.  Next to them, in the shallow depressions in the rock, were pools of water in which tiny tadpoles swam.  I was enchanted by all of it.  Years later when my family built a cabin near the Snake River in Pine County, MN, I was delighted to find harebells growing on the riverbank and along the woodland edges.

Harebells are also known as thimbles, bluebells of Scotland, heath bells and bluebells.

Harebells are also known as thimbles, bluebells, bluebells of Scotland, wind bells and heath bells.

Harebells (Campanula rotundifolia) are native to the northern regions of the United States, Europe and Asia.  They grow on slender upright stalks ranging in height between 6 and 20 inches. Narrow grass-like leaves cover most of the stalk; round leaves at the base of the plant often die before the flowers bloom.  Milky sap in the stems is another identifying characteristic. The delicate bells begin blooming in June and continue through the summer.  We usually see a modest second bloom in the fall. Besides being beautiful, harebells are a source of nectar to many species of bees during the summer and I’ve noticed bumblebees frequenting them during the second bloom in autumn.  Other common names for harebells include:  thimbles, wind bells, heath bells, bluebells and bluebells of Scotland.

Harebells blossom from June through summer, and often bloom again in autumn.

Harebells blossom from June through summer, and often bloom again in autumn.

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.