Winter Trees

A weathered old northern red oak (still living) has been a home to many birds and other animals.

A weathered old northern red oak (Quercus rubra) is home to many species of birds and other animals.

A tree’s beauty is easily noticed in three seasons: Spring’s first green haze of buds; summer’s rustling crown of leaves; and autumn’s smoldering colors. Winter uncovers a different kind of beauty: that of bark, interesting shapes, animal shelters and open sky — the guts of things not often seen.

A small stand of northern red oak includes a tree that was sheared off in a summer windstorm two decades ago. Neighboring branches hide the jagged top most of the year, but in winter the scarred wood’s polished grain and shape are revealed, along with hidden nesting cavities. Squirrels, great-created flycatchers, red-bellied woodpeckers and most recently, pileated woodpeckers have nested and raised their young in this red oak.

Crabapple trees (Malus) provide food for many birds and add winter color.

Crabapple trees (Malus) provide food for many birds and add winter color.

Crabapple trees, especially those with long-lasting fruit, add warm crimson to the stark black and white landscape. Their small shapes and curving branches remind me of bonsai trees. By late spring, most of the plump fruit will be consumed by cedar waxwings and robins.

The bark of river birch (Betula nigra) is multicolored and has a shredded texture.

The bark of river birch (Betula nigra) is multicolored and has a shredded texture.

Bark patterns and colors are more pronounced in winter with fewer distractions from the rest of the plant world.  One of my favorites is the papery bark of the river birch. The colors range from soft brown to salmon, pink and ivory. The bark shreds and flutters in the wind. Paper birch bark (Betula papyrifera) is pretty too, especially at sunrise and sunset when low rays add blush to the tips of twigs and branches.

White spruce (Picea glauca) and other evergreens shelter many creatures.

White spruce (Picea glauca) and other evergreens shelter many creatures.

The white spruce has grayish-red bark with a rough mosaic-like texture. Its evergreen branches shelter cardinals, kinglets, juncos and chickadees. At the end of winter, new burgundy cones appear, like tiny ornaments, on the tips of branches.

New cones form on a white spruce.

New cones form on a white spruce.

Winter trees reveal the hidden face of nature — textures, hues, patterns weathered and worn — and more open sky to view the moon, stars and urban sunsets; beauty to the eye that looks carefully. What do you see?

Winter sunset over Saint Paul, MN, on Feb. 22, 2017.

Winter sunset over Saint Paul, MN, on Feb. 22, 2017.

 

Memories of Birds

I heard a flock of robins this morning, murmuring softly to each other in the silver maples and hackberries. A male cardinal, tucked into our arbor vitae, whistled his “what cheer” melody. They sang memories of my dear friend Cathy, who died one year ago today.

Cathy loved birds and, as I held her hand in the silence of a January evening, a flock of robins filled the trees outside her window at Our Lady of Peace hospice. She would have loved seeing the robins. Though she wasn’t conscious, she stirred when I described their rusty breasts, black heads and charcoal backs, and how they picked berries in the twilight.

I spun tales of steamy summer afternoons when we hiked the woods and fields of Eagan, just a small city at that time; of goldfinches collecting thistledown to line their cozy nests, rose-breasted grosbeaks flashing their lovely badges along the hiking trail, and tiny common yellowthroats calling “wichity-wichity”in the willow scrubs.

An American goldfinch spreads its wings in the bee balm patch.

An American goldfinch (Spinus tristis) spreads its wings to fly from the garden.

The birds continue to awaken beautiful memories. One night last November, when the “moon of freezing over” shone full and close, a great-horned owl hooted from a spruce in our front yard. I eased open a window to listen to its soothing call and remembered evening bike rides with Cathy in the bluff country of southeastern Minnesota.  We rode wooded trails where barred owls with liquid black eyes watched us from tree limbs overhead, a hen turkey and her flock of fuzzy poults scurried about the path in front of us, and night herons croaked their calls at dusk.

Black-capped chickadees are companionable in the garden and the woods.

Black-capped chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) are companionable in the garden and the woods.

Perhaps it’s the tiny black-capped chickadee, Cathy’s favorite bird, that most often brings her to mind. One fine morning last spring after a night of thunderstorms, chickadees whistled to each other in my garden and the year’s first lily of the valley opened, covered in rain droplets. (She loved these flowers and tried to grow them for many years.) Cathy would have rejoiced in the antics of the chickadees, in the abundance of my lily of the valley garden, and in the beginning of a new day so fresh and lovely.

Lily of the valley(Convallaria majalis) is native to Northern Europe and Asia.

Lily of the valley(Convallaria majalis) is native to Northern Europe and Asia.

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).