A Ribbon of Native Prairie

Monarda, coneflowers, black-eyed Susan’s and big bluestem stretch across a prairie restoration area.

When I was young, I loved to imagine what life on the prairie would have been like in the 1800s. Inspired by Willa Cather’s novels, it wasn’t the rigorous lifestyle that attracted me, but rather the beauty of the land — nothing but open sky overhead, the sweet music of meadowlarks and bluebirds, a sea of wildflowers and native grasses.

The word prairie is French for meadow. There are four different types of prairie in Minnesota including shortgrass, sand dunes, wet meadow and tallgrass prairie. The prairies in the Upper Midwest were formed about 10,000-12,000 years ago by receding glaciers.¹ It’s estimated that Minnesota once had 18 million acres of prairie that stretched across the state from northwest to southeast. Today, slightly less than 2 percent remain, and they are small pieces that weren’t plowable. All of the other acres were replaced with crops.²

Long-headed coneflowers (Ratibida columnifera) are a native prairie wildflower and attract many species of butterflies and bees.

Fortunately, there are many places in the state where prairie restoration is underway. Two wonderful prairie habitats in Minnesota are Blue Mounds State Park near Luverne, MN, and the Jeffers Petroglyphs near Comfrey, MN. Blue Mounds features 1,500 aces of tallgrass prairie, a bison herd in its native surroundings and beautiful rock outcroppings of Sioux quartzite, which look purplish to blue depending on the light. Jeffers Petroglyphs also includes prairie and prairie restoration. The Sioux quartzite contains ancient symbols, some as old as 7000 years and the most recent thought to be 350 years old. We don’t know which American Indian nations carved the original symbols, which include thunderbirds, turtles, deer, buffalo and humans. When I visited, our guide emphasized the sacred nature of this place to American Indians and asked us to treat it with reverence.  When I took time to stop and listen, I felt presence and peace there.

Pearl crescents (Phyciodes tharos) are common on the prairie and grasslands during August and September.

Native prairie restoration at Lake Elmo Park Reserve.

I recently walked on a trail through a much smaller prairie restoration area at the Lake Elmo Park Reserve: Big bluestem, butterfly weed, blazing star, coneflowers, black-eyed Susans, goldenrod and other forbs roll in wind-swept waves; the sound of swishing grass beneath a symphony of crickets, grasshoppers, katydids, bumblebees and other singing, buzzing, chirping insects; migrating monarchs floating everywhere. I close my eyes and listen: How expansive and lovely this land must have been before settlers arrived. Let us teach our children the value and beauty of the prairie.

Indian or wood grass (Sorghastrum nutans) has bronze and yellow flowers.

Goldenrod (Solidago spp.) is a major source of nectar for migrating monarch butterflies.

Goldenrod, big bluestem and other native grasses and forbs bloom in a swath of restored prairie at Lake Elmo Park Reserve.

¹Minnesota DNR overview of the prairie biome.

²Minnesota DNR prairie conservation plan.

Silent Snow

Pond Snowy Day

Low, heavy clouds lumber overhead, and the world narrows down to the bare-treed woods and pond.  Outside, I listen to the quiet  —  so still that I can feel the pressure of silence.  All traffic and aircraft noise is muffled and absorbed by feathery flakes.  I hear only the occasional ruffle of wind swishing snow crystals across open space in powdery swirls. A lone crow soars black against the sky not breaking the stillness.

In the morning, the predawn darkness is tinted with the odd light that accompanies a new snowfall.  I am up early and watch as daylight slowly builds beneath slate clouds.  I hear no birds, but there’s a gentle huffing sound: the breathing of white-tailed deer.  Gradually, several appear on the shore of the pond.  They nibble the tips and buds of willow saplings and other tender plants that protrude from the ice-covered pond and its bank.

Pond Deer Feeding

A second group grazes along the pond’s far shore.  As I watch them, I daydream of seeing their spotted fawns in a spring world filled with green leaf buds, lush moss, wildflowers, glorious birdsong, and wood ducks and mergansers sailing on the pond.  But for now, the winter world remains black, white and still.

Pond Distant Deer

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).

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.

Autumn Photos and Phenology

Seasonal changes happen quickly in Minnesota during October and it’s interesting to watch the progression into autumn. For example, swamp milkweed seed pods break open, male goldfinch feathers transform from bright yellow to olive green, chipmunks and other rodents stash nuts and seeds for the winter, and bees and most other insects have either died or are hibernating until spring.

Naturalists use the term phenology to refer to these changes.  Phenology is the study of the changes that occur in plants and animals from year to year — such as flowering, ripening of fruit and nuts, emergence or disappearance of insects, and migration of birds — especially the timing and relationship of these events with weather and climate.  It also can include other observations, such as the occurrence of the first frost, the date on which a body of water freezes, and when specific constellations are visible in the sky.  Here are a few examples of current autumn phenology that I photographed along the Snake River in Pine County, MN:

 Northern red oak leaves begin to change color.

Northern red oak (Quercus rubra) leaves begin to change color.

Wild rose hips ripen to cherry red.

Wild rose hips (Rosa acicularis) ripen to cherry red.

Swamp milkweed (Esclepias incarnata) seeds pods release their silky seeds.

Swamp milkweed (Esclepias incarnata) pods release their silky seeds.

An eastern chipmunk collects acorns, hickory and hazelnuts in its pouches to store in its den for the winter.

An eastern chipmunk stuffs bur oak acorns into its pouches to store in its den.

Puffball mushrooms are common in autumn.

Puffball mushrooms appear in autumn.

Everyone who observes nature and records their observations contributes to the science of phenology.  If you’re interested in contributing your own observations, there are several organizations online, including:  “Nature’s Notebook” at the USA Phenology Network, the University of Minnesota’s Minnesota Phenology Network  and the National Science Foundation’s “Project Budburst”.

Early October Wildflowers: Zigzag Goldenrod

Twelve or more species of goldenrod grow in Minnesota.  All provide an important source of autumn nectar to bees, butterflies and insects, and also give a burst of long-lasting color at the end of the growing season.  Most goldenrod species grow in sunny locations, but zigzag goldenrod (Solidago flexicaulis) prefers shady woods and woodland borders.  It’s smaller, daintier and better-behaved than many of its cousins.

Zigzag goldenrod with aerial yellowjacket (Dolichovespula arenia).

Zigzag goldenrod with aerial yellowjacket (Dolichovespula arenia).

A patch of zigzag goldenrod grows in dappled sun near a hazelnut thicket along the banks of the Snake River in east central Minnesota

A patch of zigzag goldenrod (Solidago flexicaulis) grows in dappled sun near a hazelnut thicket along the banks of the Snake River in east central Minnesota.

Known also as broad-leaved goldenrod, it has oval-shaped leaves rather than thin narrow ones typical of many goldenrods.  The stem bends a little bit at each node, hence the name zigzag.  An interesting fact:  Sometimes allergy sufferers blame their misery on goldenrod, but ragweed is the true culprit.  Unlike ragweed pollen, which is wind-dispersed, goldenrod has sticky pollen that is dependent upon insect pollination.  So, if you’re sneezing in the fall, it is primarily caused by the pollen of ragweed and nettle!  To learn more about the difference between ragweed and goldenrod, visit the University of Minnesota Extension website for an excellent, succinct overview.

Lake Darner Dragonfly

I love dragonflies for their aerial acrobatics, beautiful colors and ancient presence — they’ve flown Earth’s skies for about 300 million years.  In Minnesota, a few species of large, colorful dragonflies are active into October.  Last week I found a darner (Aeshna) dragonfly sunning itself on a nearby cabin.

A lake darner dragonfly (Aeshna eremita) rests in the sun.

A lake darner dragonfly (Aeshna eremita) rests in the sun.

Called darners for the resemblance of their long abdomen to a darning needle, the blue or mosaic darners can be confusing to tell apart.  I believe the one I photographed is a lake darner (Aeshna eremita), based on the notched side stripe, the vivid greenish-blue jewel-like coloration of the stripes, its length (about three inches) and its vertical perching position.  It flew away before I could get close enough to see its facial markings.  Lake darners are native to Canada and the northern United States, and are the largest species of North American darner.  They prey on mosquitoes, wasps, mayflies and most other kinds of soft-bodied insects.

Related Websites:

The Dragonfly Website includes a great overview of dragonfly facts in its “Frequently Asked Questions” section.

ARKive.org features a profile and photos of the lake darner, along with thousands of other plant and animal species.