January Thaw

The week’s mild air and slow, steady melt have given voice to the first cardinal songs and chickadee whistles. Robins also call softly throughout the neighborhood. It’s too early to look for bulbs and other new life in the garden, but there’s a lot happening under the snow. I’m excited about the thaw and had a peek at what goes on under the white blanket during the winter!

Where the snow melted away from the lower stalks of a climbing rose, I found bracket fungus growing on the remains of an old stalk that died several winters ago. I hesitated to cut it down (for fear of damaging the plant) and left it alone. Now, nature is returning it to the earth on its own schedule. The fungus, also known as shelf fungus, breaks down the main components in the dead wood and returns them to the soil.

Bracket or shelf fungus, with their striations, remind me of freshwater clam shells.

Bracket or shelf fungus, with their striations, remind me of freshwater clam shells.

I also found a few patches of bright green moss exposed by the melt. I think it is fire moss (Ceratodon purpureus), which remains green under the snow throughout winter. Like the fungus, it is an ancient plant that evolved more than 500 million years ago. The moss breaks down rock and other components that enrich the soil. Moss also helps prevent erosion by holding water and soil in place. Its fresh spring green is a beautiful contrast to winter’s formal black and white.

Fire moss stays moist and green under the snow. It builds soil and helps control erosion.

Fire moss stays moist and green under the snow. It builds soil and helps control erosion.

Both plants replenish the earth and prepare for spring growth. So, in a few months, as you enjoy the beauty of spring bulbs, budding trees and blossoming perennials, remember the lowly fungi and moss that return nutrients to the earth and restore soil to nourish the circle of life.

Living things like this mourning cloak and common milkweed, benefit from the hidden actions of fungi and moss under the snow.

Living things like this mourning cloak and common milkweed, benefit from the hidden actions of fungi and moss under the snow.

The Ancient Ginkgo Tree

Pollution and disease-resistant ginkgo trees are planted as boulevard trees in St. Paul, MN.

Pollution and disease-resistant ginkgo trees are planted as boulevard trees in St. Paul, MN.

In mid-November when most trees are bare, a ginkgo tree lit by the sun is a golden sight. Until last Friday’s heavy rain, wind and snow, the ginkgoes were beautiful this year. Ginkgoes (Ginkgo biloba) are also called maidenhair trees because their leaves resemble those of the maidenhair fern. The leaves remind me of delicate Asian fans — cool green in summer, and in autumn, bright yellow mellowing to a deep gold.

I saw my first ginkgo on a beautiful fall day in the late 1970s on the campus of St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minn. I’d not heard of a ginkgo and never guessed that an ancient tree native to China would become a common boulevard tree in the Twin Cities. Ginkgoes do well in USDA plant hardiness zones 3-8, and many are planted in urban areas because they tolerate air pollution and the corrosive de-icing salt used on streets in northern winters.

The ginkgoes' beautiful leaves remind me of Asian hand fans.

The ginkgo’s beautiful leaves remind me of Asian hand fans.

The word ginkgo means “silver fruit” or “silver apricot.” Fossils of ginkgo trees precede dinosaurs, dating back 270 million years to the Jurassic period. They lived with such creatures as dragonflies, trilobites, many types of reptiles, and such plants as mosses and conifers. In comparison, the oldest fossilized maples are about 100 million years old, and trees similar to modern oaks arose nearly 35 million years ago. Like other ancient plants, ginkgoes are non-flowering.  They reproduce similarly to ferns and algae. The male tree produces a pollen cone and the female tree a flowerless ovule. Each pollen grain contains two motile sperm. When the pollen grains reach the ovule, a tiny droplet of liquid must be present for the sperm to swim to and fertilize the ovule to produce the seed.

The oldest living ginkgo in China is thought to be more than 3,500 years old. A testament to the species’ resilience is its survival of Earth’s many climatic changes deadly to other organisms. In modern times, six ginkgoes survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Japan. Temples and other buildings were destroyed. The ginkgoes were damaged and burned, but leafed out the following year and are still alive today about .6 miles from the impact site.

Ginkgo leaves change from bright yellow to deep gold as they age.

Ginkgo leaves change from bright yellow to deep gold as they age.

So, with their beauty, long life, strength and stamina, what’s not to like about ginkgoes? Unfortunately, the outer coat of the ginkgo seed reeks. When the seeds drop from the trees and are crushed on the sidewalk and street, they create a terrible stench – some compare it to the odor of rancid butter or vomit. Only the female tree produces seeds, so city planners and residents often plant male trees. However, if the male tree was grafted to female rootstock, the mature tree sometimes produces seeds. In China and Japan, the seeds are peeled and used in many types of cuisine. Enjoy the beautiful ginkgo, but don’t walk through the messy, malodorous seeds!

November Honey Bee

A honey bee visits a 'Henry Kelsey' rose in early November.

A honey bee visits a ‘Henry Kelsey’ rose in early November.

Under the gentle, midday sun, I walked through scads of scarlet maple, golden aspen and lemon-colored apple leaves that dot our cleaned up garden. I heard a steady buzzing and followed it to a group of buds and blossoms on the climbing rose that grows on our garage. Among the roses floated a single honey bee (Apis mellifera), as leisurely as if it had been a sultry August afternoon, instead of early November. The golden bee rolled in the pollen of each rose before heading skyward.

I miss my small garden so much during the winter. Seeing and hearing that tiny creature brought me great joy — the simple beauty of bee and blossom, the presence of life in the November garden, and a wonderful image to remember when winter inevitably arrives.

Most bees that inhabit Minnesota die in late autumn, but honey bee colonies overwinter. This year’s long, frost-free autumn gives them extra time to fortify their hives for winter. To find out more about how honey bees survive the long northern winter, visit:
What Happens to Honey Bees in the Winter?
Do Honey Bees Fly South for the Winter?

October Gold and Blue

White oaks shine against a cloudless October sky.

Bur oaks (Quercus macrocarpa) shine against a cloudless October sky.

The fleeting season of gold and blue arrived in central Minnesota last week. The golden hues of bitternut hickory, bur oak, aspen and ash glow against a sky the color of a newly opened morning glory — a shade unique to autumn. Along the Snake River, the steely blue-gray wings of a great blue heron swoop over the sparkling water.

A great blue heron (Ardea herodias) swoops over the Snake River in east central Minnesota.

A great blue heron (Ardea herodias) swoops over the Snake River in east central Minnesota.

Sky blue morning glories continue to bloom in October.

Heavenly blue (Ipomea purpurea) morning glories continue to bloom in October.

Closer to the ground, the last of the powder-blue bottle gentians and asters — some with center disks as bold as the sun — bloom among the grasses. Fallen aspen leaves accent walkways, and the heart-shaped leaves of the carrion flower vine wind their tendrils skyward. In a few days, this lovely combination will dampen down to more muted tones, the gentle softness that insulates the earth for winter’s palette of black and white.

Bottle gentian blooms (Gentiana andrewsii) turn dark and dry out as their seeds mature.

Bottle gentian blooms (Gentiana andrewsii) turn dark and dry out as their seeds mature.

Asters (Symphyotrichum novi-begii) provide nectar to these hoverflies and many other autumn insects.

Asters (Symphyotrichum novi-belgii) provide nectar to these hoverflies, or syrphids, and many other autumn insects.

Aspen leaves and moss decorate a walkway at our cabin.

Quaking aspen leaves (Populus tremuloides) and moss decorate a walkway at our cabin.

The heart-shaped leaves of the carrion flower (Smilax herbacea) add light and color to the October woods.

The heart-shaped leaves of the carrion flower vine (Smilax herbacea) add light and color to the October woods.

 

Metallic Green Bees

A metallic green bee (agapostemon) drinks nectar from a Helenium flower.

A metallic green bee (Agapostemon) drinks nectar from a Helenium flower.

A female green metallic bee searches for nectar in a woodland sunflower.

A female metallic green bee searches for nectar in a Jerusalem Artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus L.).

Bees of many kinds visit our backyard garden on sunny autumn afternoons — and not all are black and yellow!  I think one of the prettiest is the metallic green bee, which is a type of tiny sweat bee in the (family Halictidae).  The female bee’s body is usually a beautiful iridescent green.  The male bee has a bright green head and thorax, but in contrast to the female, he sports a vibrantly striped abdomen — black with yellow or white stripes.

Native asters are a favorite of metallic green bees.

Native heath asters (Symphyotrichum ericoides) are a favorite of metallic green bees.

Metallic green bees, typically just a few eighths of an inch in size, are small in comparison to many backyard bees, such as bumble bees and honey bees.  They are short-tongued bees, so they prefer to drink nectar from flowers that have a more shallow, open structure. In our yard they prefer Helenium and asters.

Unlike colonial bees that live in hives, each adult female green bee creates her own underground nesting chamber in which she lays her eggs. Sometimes, several females construct individual nests near each other, but they remain solitary.

When cold weather arrives in late October, the male green bees die. Fertilized females survive because they form a layer of insulating fat and burrow into the ground to overwinter. Next spring, they will lay eggs in new underground nests and continue the life cycle. Most years, green bees should be visiting your garden by the end of April.

A green bee catches the warmth of the late afternoon sun.

A male green bee catches the warmth of the late afternoon sun on an aster (Symphyotrichum novi-belgii).

 

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.