Winged Beauty

The numerous blue scalings along the wing border identify this as an eastern tiger swallowtail female (Papilio glaucus).

Just before supper on a hot August evening, the air is heavy with smoky haze from Canadian forest fires. I hear the constant whine of cicadas and smell the scents of garden phlox and royal standard hostas. In a corner of our garden a creature of great beauty nectars in the Joe-Pye; its striped wings open and almost glow against a background of green leaves and shades of pink. The deep blue spots lining its hind wings reveal it to be a female eastern tiger swallowtail. She’s oblivious to the numerous bumblebees that gather nectar and pollen around her. At one point a territorial monarch chases her from the Joe-Pye. (The monarch repeats its rounds through the yard many times an hour, and tries to oust “intruders” — especially other large butterflies.) The two dance a quick scuffle in the air and the “tiger” disappears over the neighbor’s fence for a few minutes. She soon returns to the Joe-Pye garden and continues to nectar.

Joe-Pye (Eutrochium maculatum) is a favorite source of nectar for eastern tiger swallowtails.

I like to recall such moments of warmth and beauty in January and February as I mark off the days on the calendar and wait for spring. I’ll think of the gentle humming of bumblebees, the lilting call of a goldfinch passing by, and the delicate, colorful wings of all of the butterflies that sail through the garden, especially the tiger swallowtail. I’ll remember that her progeny will overwinter in chrysalis form — attached to tree bark, a plant stem, or in leaf litter — snug and asleep under the snow. In May, they will hatch to continue their life cycle of beauty.

Winter Solstice


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).

Monarchs and Joe-Pye Weed

Monarch butterflies are rare visitors this summer.  In a typical year, they float through the backyard all day.  Over the past week, a solitary monarch visited our patch of spotted Joe-Pye weed (Eutrochium maculatum) each day between 7 and 8 a.m.  Sunlight glowed in its beautiful wings as it sipped the Joe-Pye nectar.

A monarch sips Joe-Pye weed nectar in early-morning sunlight.

A monarch sips Joe-Pye weed nectar in early-morning sunlight.

In the next two weeks, monarch migration through St. Paul, MN, should peak, according to  To check peak migration in your own area, visit  peak migration.  During the 2011 fall migration peak, 10-to-25 monarchs visited our Joe-Pye patch each afternoon, and often roosted in our apple tree for the night.  I’m interested in comparing this year’s numbers with the 2011 observations.  (Last year, the Joe-Pye blossomed two-to-three weeks earlier than usual, due to the early spring, and as a result, finished blooming ahead of monarch migration.

In addition to the low numbers of monarchs, I’ve only seen one each of black swallowtails, red admirals and mourning cloaks, and only two tiger swallowtails in our garden.  I haven’t found caterpillars of any of the five species.  Read more about the low number of butterflies this year, from the Star Tribune.