a wildflower experiment

I got tired of trying to grow vegetables in my backyard garden space year after year, only to have them wilt with insect infestations, or get some virus that turned the leaves brown.  And finally at summer’s end near optimal harvest time, the garden was shaded by 2 p.m., because the maximum altitude of the sun’s arc in the sky in late August was below the tops of the trees.

So I converted my vegetable garden to a wildflower garden, with a wildflower mix from a company that promised lots of native plants from my region.  I dispersed the seed generously, watered it faithfully, and waited for weeks while it looked like I was growing nothing but weeds.  As an added bonus, I thought a bevy of flowers would attract more butterflies and bees to my backyard (which is what the wildflower packet promised).

Finally, the wildflower seed mix is starting to bloom behind the giant hyssop.

It’s a lush mix of quite a variety of plants, and there probably are a good number of my native weeds  in there too.

But unfortunately, I don’t recognize many of the flowers in this mix, which leads me to wonder if they are really from this region of the country.  For example, a few  California Poppies have appeared, and I’m sure they are not native to MN.

I would love to see golden poppies every year in my garden, but I doubt they can withstand the Minnesota winter.

They are quite pretty, but I’m disappointed that these flowers seem to be non-natives that will not attract the insects that my bird friends depend on during the summer.

What is this? It’s like nothing I’ve seen around here before.

Or this? A green sweat bee made a brief stop on this flower, looking for pollen perhaps.

What might this be, some kind of pink wallflower relative?

Or these, pretty little blue and white flowers? No insects anywhere around them.

I’m going to call this a failed experiment, an important failure because it highlights something that should be an on-going concern of all avid gardeners.  And that is this:  if we continue to replace the native vegetation in our yards with non-native species, insects that depend on native perennial and annual vegetation will face a food desert.  They don’t have the biochemistry to cope with the plant defenses of introduced non-natives, so they produce fewer or no offspring in a garden of non-native plants.  And the birds that depend on those insects to feed their own young similarly suffer the consequences of the food desert.

So, plant more native species and keep those insects happy!

Monarch butterflies love our native Swamp Milkweed for its nectar as well as a source of food for their larvae.

Exploring Maplewood state park

We made a brief trip up north over the July 4 holiday to lovely Maplewood state park, about a 3-hour drive northwest of the Twin Cities.  Lakes, trails, great campsites, rental canoes and kayaks available, swimming beach, wildlife, and more.  What a beautiful place, and it must be even more so in the fall, when the maple-basswood forest has turned gold and red.

The view of upper and lower Lake Lida from Hallaway Hill must be spectacular in the fall.  Driving the man-made causeway west takes you out of the park.

The sumac was in full bloom, and honeybees were busy pollinating. In the fall, red plumes of sumac seeds will light up this hillside.

At the top of Hallaway Hill, we happened to be standing at the intersection of the territories of three Yellow Warbler males. If one male got too close to another male’s boundary, a brief aerial scuffle between them ensued. One of the resident males checked us out.

A pair of Trumpeter Swans fed on submerged vegetation on one of the lakes in the park.

Summer blooms

Finally, the flowers have begun to make an appearance after a long, cool spring.  It’s past mid-summer, but the peonies have just finished (very late) and the summer bloomers are finally budding out.

Black-eyed Susan flowers are just barely open.

The common milkweed flowers fill the air with their perfume, but these were some of the very few open, and no bees were buzzing around the plants.

Monarch butterflies should enjoy this large patch of milkweed when the flowers finally open.

A milkweed beetle has found the plants, though. They are brightly colored as a warning to predators that they are full of the milkweed’s poisonous chemicals.

The bright orange flowers of butterfly weed should attract pollinators as well.

Blue Flag Iris was blooming in the cattail marsh, where its brilliant blue-violet flowers stand out in all the green. It seems to attract more flies than bees today, probably some species of hover fly that lands on those guide stripes on the petal and walk right into the inner chamber for their nectar reward.

A young painted turtle, perhaps hatched out last summer, meandered slowly through the marsh, nibbling along its way.

Ah, summer, you’re much too short, but come with such beauty.

Wonder flower — Peonies

What can you say about a plant that produces dozens of brilliantly colored, salad plate-sized flowers, except to call it a “wonder flower”.  It smells wonderful, blooms in brilliant shades of every color but blue, and has lush dark green foliage that survives benign neglect in the garden after its lovely blooms have disappeared.  Wonder, indeed.

Scarlet peonies, a feast for the eyes.

There are six main types of peonies we find in gardens, that seem to differ in how many petals they cram into the flower head.  Walking along the bike trail in front of my house, I found several different kinds of peonies in the roadside gardens.

The basic peony model is one of a simple row of petals surrounding the bisexual structures:  anthers (with their stamens full of pollen) and the central pistil containing the ovary (carpel) full of ovules and the stigma that receives the pollen.

A row of five petals surrounds the central reproductive structures, which are also brilliantly colorful.  Pink stigmatic structures protrude from the lime green carpels in the middle of a ring of bright yellow stamens.

Semi-double Peony flowers have multiple rows of petals, but still show a large concentration of stamens surrounding the brightly colored pistil in the center.

In Japanese Peonies, the stamens have been transformed into narrow petal-like structures, but they retain some of the pollen bearing structures at their tips. The female pistil structure is obvious in the center of the flower.

Some of the stamens and stigmas are transformed to rows of petals in the Double Peony, making it a much fuller, heavier flower. 

The Anemone type Peony has no male structures — they have been transformed into petals surrounding the central pistil structure with its multiple carpels topped with curved stigmas.

In the ball-shaped double peony flower, all of the stamens have been transformed into petal structures, and the flower produces no pollen.

Even though their vibrant blooms are rather short-lasting, peonies are one of the most sought-after garden plants, a welcoming introduction to the summer flower extravaganza.

the nectar thief

Each year, the Ohio Buckeye tree outside my porch window puts out a prodigious number of flower spikes, which reliably attract a few pollinators and one clever nectar thief.

Pollination of these flowers is sufficient for the tree to produce copious quantities of nuts, which are harvested by the squirrels in the fall.

Hummingbirds, bumblebees, and orioles visit the Buckeye tree in the spring, along with a horde of Tennessee warblers.

Tennessee Warblers arrive just as the Buckeye tree is in full flower. How do they manage to time it just right?

Tennessee Warblers really have nothing to do with the state of Tennessee, but do migrate through there, where they were first seen and named way back in 1811.  Like many small insectivores they spend the winter in the tropics, eating insects and nectar, and breed in the Canadian spruce forests where they specialize on spruce budworm and are critical to controlling outbreaks of the moth there.

Though they do visit flowers to consume nectar, they do not perform much of a pollination service for the plants, because they use their sharp beaks to pierce the flower at its base to get at the nectar at the bottom of the flower tube, thus avoiding the pollen on the anthers sticking far out of the flower.

Note where the beak is positioned to the side of the flower at its base. Pollen might inadvertently stick to the bird’s head or breast as it bumps into the anthers, but it might be hit or miss in depositing the pollen on the stigma of another flower.

Their beak is slightly open as if they are biting the flower to open a small hole in its base.

They only visit for a few days each spring, so I guess this must be the peak of their migration through MN this year.  You can see a light dusting of pollen on this bird’s neck and breast.

The sugars in the nectar will be metabolized and stored as fat and should provide these tiny little birds (about 2/3 the size of a chickadee) with the fuel they need to get to the Canadian spruce forest to breed.

(these photos shot with the Sony RX10 iii bridge camera through my porch window — what an amazing little camera!)

A weekend of birds and flowers

We drove to Lincoln, Nebraska for a wedding, and on the way we stopped to census the bird life with a few other birders at Weaver Dunes Nature Conservancy preserve in southeastern Minnesota: the day’s total was 77 species, and among them 14 species of warblers!  This was part of the Nature Conservancy’s one-day state chapter competition.  Last year MN came in second, and the pressure was on to beat Texas this year.

It took six people to find a Blue-headed Vireo in a tree.

Female Downy Woodpecker working on a nest hole — one of the 77 species we saw.

A rustic looking barn on a farm across the road from the preserve.

Prairie Violets covered the ground on some of the dune slopes, the first spring flowers blooming here.

Even the lichen were “blooming”: British Soldiers lichen with their bright red fruiting caps on gray-green stems, usually found on rotting stumps like this one.

I had a Sony RX 10 camera I was trying out on this trip, so before the wedding, we headed over to the Sunken Garden in Lincoln to see what was blooming.

Lots of mosquitos on the water lilies, but no frogs to enjoy them.

I don’t know what these trees were, but their new leaves were brilliant salmon red and pink.  The red pigment in new leaves protects them from sun damage before the leaves have synthesized their chlorophyll pigment.


Black and white tulips — that’s a little different.

Spiderwort growing by a waterfall made a nice contrast.  The camera has a wide range of shutter speeds for special effects, like silky water,

Quite a camera this Sony RX10, with its fixed 24-600 mm lens. And it weighs about 1/10 of what Big Bertha (my SLR and telephoto combo) does.  Something to consider when you need a multipurpose, lightweight travel camera.

Poppy fields

just what I wanted to see…I love the way they change color from deep orange to bright yellow-orange, depending on the direction of the light.

California poppy California poppy California poppy and lupines California poppy

These poppies are self-seeding, drought tolerant, will colonize disturbed, poor soils other plants cannot, and come in a variety of colors in the red-orange-yellow spectrum. No wonder they are such a dominant roadside plant in California and Oregon. And they brighten your day, just looking at them.

Between the storm clouds

The sun is a fickle thing in Northern California these days; it remains hidden behind dense cloud banks and then teases us with its all-too-brief appearances.  Nevertheless, we’ve been out in search of the few wildflowers in bloom now; apparently, peak bloom is a little late this year.  A few highlights of our adventures in Santa Clara county parks below…

Wildflowers, Calero county park, San Jose CA

Roadside lupines, they really do well in bare, rocky, sandy soil where other plants have trouble getting established.

Wildflowers, Calero county park, San Jose CA

Blue-eyed grass makes an early spring appearance.

Wildflowers, Calero county park, San Jose CA

Possibly a species of Checker Mallow, a dainty and scarce herb in this field of lupines.

Wildflowers, Calero county park, San Jose CA

Yellow violets embedded among the other vegetation


Fiddleheads poke up between other wildflowers in the field.

California poppy

Everyone’s favorite, the California poppy, another scrappy survivor of rocky, barren places.

California poppy

The color orange is defined by the California poppy!  This was just one plant.

Bees and blossoms

Spring is in full swing here in northern California, and I was glad to see so many honeybees out performing their pollinating service.  In fact, there were many more honeybees here than I typically see on the flowers in streetside gardens at home. Hmmmm…wonder what that means?

honeybee on Ceanothus (California lilac)

Honeybees swarmed the tinybflowers of California lilac (Ceanothus species)

honeybee on Ceanothus (California lilac)

They were probably collecting pollen from this plant (rather than nectar).  Look at those full pollen baskets on the rear appendages.

Honeybee pollination

Twin flowers of this mint species offer nectar at the bottom of a deep floral tube, causing the bee to pick up pollen on its back as they brush by the anthers.

Honeybee pollination

Better view of the plant-pollinator geometry that ensures the bee does its job for the flower while getting its reward. Bees typically spent several seconds on each flower, so either the nectar was hard to get to, or there was a lot of it (probably the former).

Honeybee pollination

Bright purple modified leaves at the top of the flower stem attract bees to this fragrant mint. The tiny, purple-black flowers stud the sides of a thick floral stem.

Purple sage garden plant

I think this might be Spanish Lavender, which looks nothing like MN lavender.  It’s highly aromatic, like other lavenders, though.

California is experiencing a mega-bloom after all the recent winter rain, so I hope I will see a lot more of these plant-pollinator interactions in the next few days.

From steel mill spoils to prairie

What to do on a rainy day in Sydney, Nova Scotia, the biggest little city on Cape Breton Island?  Not enough time to drive all the way to Cape Breton Park, so we opted for a walk in Open Hearth Park, formerly a hazardous waste area created by runoff of coke sludge from the large steel manufacturing plant in Sydney.  The transformation completed in 2013 is impressive, with a clear, fresh water stream flowing through wide expanses of prairie grasses and forbs.

Muggah Creek in Open Hearth Park, Sydney, Nova Scotia

Muggah Creek was once clogged with tar pits that formed from the runoff of coke sludge from the steel mill.  Tailings of coal mines are still visible along the creek.

Sydney produced great quantities of steel for England bound convoys in both WW1 and WW2, but the steel mill finally ceased production in 2001.

Muggah Creek in Open Hearth Park, Sydney, Nova Scotia

Replanted evergreen, birch, and prairie plants has changed the landscape here dramatically.

New England aster at Open Hearth Park in Sydney, Nova Scotia

Several species of aster were blooming in Open Hearth Park.

Prairie flowers at Open Hearth Park in Sydney, Nova Scotia

Wildflowers at Open Hearth Park

Canada Geese in Sydney, Nova Scotia

Canada Geese where they belong…in Canada

Black Duck, Open Hearth Park, Sydney, Nova Scotia

Black Ducks are rarely seen in MN, but are common here.  They look like Mallards but have yellow instead of orange bills, and a black eye stripe.

Muggah Creek estuary, Open Hearth Park, Sydney, Nova Scotia

Muggah Creek is a tidal estuary, largely salt water here at its mouth on the Atlantic shore.