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.

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.

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!)

the Flint Hills

Explorer Zebulon Pike coined the term “flint hills” for the rocky, flinty limestone-rich tall grass prairie that runs north to south down the eastern 1/3 of Kansas into Oklahoma.

Flint hills near Bazaar cattle ranch, Kansas

Rolling prairie as far as the eye can see, dotted with cattle.

Early settlers found the ground much too rocky to farm, but it made good cattle pasture. Today, the prairie is managed by regular burning, which returns the previous year’s nutrients to the soil, and creates a lush green carpet.

Flint hills near Bazaar cattle ranch, Kansas

The contrast of green, previously burned and yellow-brown, unburned prairie is obvious on opposite sides of the highway.  We just barely outran the thunderstorm that was moving east as we drove south.

Flint hills near Bazaar cattle ranch, Kansas

The Flint Hills are the most dense coverage of tall grass prairie in all of North America. Imagine what this must have looked like in the early 1800s when huge herds of buffalo roamed the prairie.

Why is this extensive formation here, you might wonder?  Because 250 million years ago, this area and much of the Midwest was covered by a shallow sea, where silt and sand, as well as the carbonates from the rich invertebrate fauna in the sea, were deposited in layers.  Erosion of softer materials over time left the rocky, flint- Continue reading

The beautiful Sonoran desert

I love the varied topography and vegetation of the Tucson area, and especially up in the foothills of the Catalina mountains on the road to Oracle (what a great name). Here are some views of the mountain landscape from Catalina State Park at sunset today.

Catalina Mountains, Tucson, AZ

Catalina Mountains, Tucson, AZ

Catalina Mountains, Tucson, AZ

Catalina Mountains, Tucson, AZ

the creek

I am intrigued by the idea of a creek that runs through the heart of a dense urban area with mostly clear water and that supports a variety of wildlife along its riparian border.

Los Gatos creek, Campbell Park, San Jose, CA

Water levels may fluctuate, but there is always enough to support wildlife.

Los Gatos creek runs northward 24 miles from the Santa Cruz mountains through the once orchard-rich, now highly residential Santa Clara valley to join the Guadelupe River which eventually empties into the southern end of San Francisco Bay.

Los Gatos creek, Campbell Park, San Jose, CA

Steep slopes along its course have been lined with sandbags or rocks to prevent the inevitable erosion of soft soils into the river that would dam its flow.

Along its length, the creek feeds two reservoirs and several small impoundments meant to recharge the ground water and prevent San Jose from subsiding as water is drawn from underground storage during urban development.

Los Gatos creek, Campbell Park, San Jose, CA

Creek water is aerated as it cascades over waterfalls and dams along its course.

Los Gatos creek, Campbell Park, San Jose, CA

In places, the creek becomes a narrow channel, where water moves swiftly over rocks.

Hard to believe you’re in the middle of a major metropolis when you stand by the creek and watch a Coopers Hawk take down an errant little bird on the opposite shore.

Los Gatos creek, Campbell Park, San Jose, CA

Maples, oaks, sycamores, and cottonwoods line the shore of the creek, creating colorful landscapes and providing cover for wildlife.

Walking north on the trail along the creek toward downtown San Jose, I came across an unusual painting on one of the many highway overpasses.

Los Gatos creek, Campbell Park, San Jose, CA

Was this creek a salmon run?

In the late 1800s, “speckled trout” (probably the steelhead, or pacific rainbow trout) were apparently so numerous in the creek, they could be caught by hand.  But agricultural development in the valley lowered the water table too much to sustain the salmon migration, until the reservoir and percolation pond system raised it.

Today tagged steelhead trout and Chinook salmon once again migrate up the Guadelupe River and Los Gatos creek from San Francisco Bay, which is a testament to the health of this urban riparian system.

Birding in a Florida salt marsh

What a pleasant surprise to find such a rich and interesting wildlife refuge just an hour north of Cape Canaveral — Blackpoint Drive, a 7 mile road along dikes in a salt marsh that is part of the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.

Blackpoint Drive wildlife refuge, Titusville FL

A typical scene along the dike roads of mangroves and pools in the salt marsh.

Here’s how the Fish and Wildlife Service describe this unique area.

Imagine a broad, flat expanse of salt marsh stretching from where your car is parked to the Indian River, a distance of about 1 mile. The only obstruction is an occasional hammock of palms or a mangrove-rimmed pond, and behind you, on higher ground, slash pines. Marsh streams gracefully wind through the marsh and provide a thoroughfare for microscopic plants and animals, shellfish and fish. Egrets and herons are poised along the stream edge, like spearfishermen patiently awaiting a meal. Secretively, sparrows search for insects in the chest-high grass. Occasionally, tides aided by a strong wind flood the marsh, and on the ebb, nutrient-laden waters are exported to the river. The marsh and river are one.

Blackpoint Drive wildlife refuge, Titusville FL

An island of palmetto on higher ground stands behind the sea of grass in the salt marsh.

Although we were visiting before the big influx of winter migrants arrived, there was still plenty to see, which is why a 7 mile drive took us more than 3 hours. Butterflies, lizards, lots of birds, alligators, and even a errant manatee that wasn’t supposed to be in this area of the salt marsh crossed our path.

Tri-colored Heron, Blackpoint Drive wildlife refuge, Titusville FL

Tri-colored Herons were common in the shallow pools lined by mangroves.

Tri-colored Heron, Blackpoint Drive wildlife refuge, Titusville FL

This one was pretty tame, and walked right up to us.

Greater Yellowlegs, Blackpoint Drive wildlife refuge, Titusville FL

Greater Yellowlegs foraged in the shallow mudflats.

Blackpoint Drive wildlife refuge, Titusville FL

A few flocks of small dabbling ducks floated in the deeper pools, but quickly took cover in the mangroves when they spotted us.

Alligator, Blackpoint Drive wildlife refuge, Titusville FL

Floating in some of those same deep pools were alligators of various sizes, from small like this one to very large.

Little Blue Heron, Blackpoint Drive wildlife refuge, Titusville FL

A solitary Little Blue Heron stalked its prey.

Great Blue Heron, Blackpoint Drive wildlife refuge, Titusville FL

Mangroves make useful perching spots for both Great Blue Herons and Great (White) Egrets.

Yellow-dumped Warbler, Blackpoint Drive wildlife refuge, Titusville FL

Yellowthroat and Yellow-rumpled Warblers were frequently seen foraging in the low bushes and mangroves along the water’s edge.

Juvenile and adult Common Moorhens, Blackpoint Drive wildlife refuge, Titusville FL

Common Moorhens must have raised their brood in these pools lined by mangroves. This juvenile bird is flanked by two adults in the background.

Manatee, Blackpoint Drive wildlife refuge, Titusville FL

The manatee was swimming along the edge of a small stream, squeezing itself through culverts that connected waterways. Apparently they are restricted from this area because they get stuck and have to be rescued and removed by wildlife biologists.

Black Vultures, Blackpoint Drive wildlife refuge visitor center

We found Black Vultures resting in the shade on the lawn of the visitor center 2 miles up the road from the wildlife refuge. It was close to 90 degrees and very humid, so no wonder they took refuge here.

What an amazing area, the last remnant of the natural salt marshes that probably lined the eastern coast of Florida before it was extensively developed. Not only is it a haven for wildlife, but it’s a natural barrier to storm surge and salt water intrusion inland.

Beautiful Bar Harbor

Another cloudy day, but Mt. Desert island (pronounced “dessert”) did not disappoint.  The Acadia National Park service shuttles in the park had ceased operation 4 days ago, which made sight-seeing without a car difficult, but we found a 2 hour tour of park highlights that was all I could have wished for.  The fall color was spectacular everywhere, even through cloudy, rainy fog.

a few of the highlights of our tour…

Acadia National Park, Bar Harbor, ME

Acadia National Park, Bar Harbor, ME

Acadia National Park, Bar Harbor, ME

Acadia National Park, Bar Harbor, ME

Acadia National Park, Bar Harbor, ME

View of Bar Harbor harbor area from the top of Cadillac Mt. 45 mph wind up here!

Lobster traps, Bar Harbor, ME

Lobster traps in the bay

Islands off Bar Harbor, ME

The sun came out just as we were leaving the area!

Fall harvest gone wild

This should be called the year of the fantastic nut crop: acorns by the ton, walnuts carpeting the lawn, and buckeyes remaining unharvested because there is a food surplus in the backyard like never before.

Ohio buckeye nuts

The Ohio Buckeye tree is loaded with nuts, which the squirrels should have harvested by now.

Why is this happening?  I don’t remember there being great spring weather; oh wait, I was in the UK during spring.  The summer was the usual blend of hot and humid interspersed with cold and rainy, so it must have been perfect for growing a huge nut crop.  But why have all the oak trees in the backyard gone crazy with acorn production?

Oak acorns

The forest floor has become crunchy with fallen acorns. This is just what the squirrels leave behind.

We are experiencing a “mast year” in oak tree production of acorns, which happens irregularly, every two to five to seven years.  And it’s happening in not just one species of oak, but simultaneously in the three most common Minnesota oak species — the northern pin oak, the northern red oak, and the bur oak.

Bucks eating acorns, photo by Charles Alsheimer

In a normal year of acorn production, animals consume or store most of the acorn crop, leaving little chance that the nuts could sprout into seedling oaks. Photo by Charles Alsheimer.

In a recent post (September 12), I discussed how trees “talk” to each other, and this synchronous boom production of acorns is a good example of the result of that communication, which can occur not only locally within a forest, but over broad distances.  Basically, mast production of acorns is the trees’ combined strategy of satiating the acorn consumers so that the leftovers can develop into seedlings.

The oaks must have been talking to the walnuts in the backyard as well, and the squirrels are just not able to keep up with the bounties of this fall harvest.

Gray squirrel husking a walnut

Bring all your friends, Mr. Squirrel, I’ve already raked up a garbage can full of walnuts.

The perfect response to this enormous fall bounty — “stop, I’m full already”.

National Geographic funny animal photos, 2018, Photo by Mary McGowan, CWPA, Barcroft Images

National Geographic funny animal photos, 2018, Photo by Mary McGowan, CWPA, Barcroft Images.

A short history of apples

This is a rewrite of a post from September 2015, during the first fall harvest of my “apple orchard” (four dwarf trees).

This is apple harvest time in Minnesota, home of the Honeycrisp variety of apples, so loved by everyone who has tried one.

honeycrisp apples-

My honeycrisp apple trees are so loaded with apples, the branches are bending down to the ground.

It seems to be a Fall for bumper crops of all types of apples, from crabapples to honeycrisp, judging from the loaded branches of the apple trees on my street.

apple tree-loaded with fruit

An apple tree loaded with fruit awaits harvest. Squirrels take one bite and spoil a perfect apple, and the deer finish them off when they fall to the ground. 

Originally native to Kazakhstan, this highly productive forest tree has spread around the globe, even though the original progenitor was a small, sour, shriveled fruit that probably was more often used for a fermented beverage than eating.  After all, its genus name is Malus which is Latin for “bad”, as in bad-tasting.

michael-pollan-apple-origin

Quote from Michael Pollan on the origin of apples in his book, The Botany of Desire

From Kazakhstan, the seeds of better-tasting and fleshier types of apples were dropped by traders along the Silk Road to Asia and to Europe, and eventually made their way to North America with the early colonists who planted apple orchards, spreading the apple genes throughout the northeast, and eventually throughout the U.S.

apple harvest-Kazakhstan

Apple harvest-Kazakhstan marketplace. At its center of origin, there are 56 species of the wild Malus species, only 30 of which have been semi- or wholly domesticated for apple production.

But apples, like humans, do not produce carbon copies of themselves in their seeds, so each seed in an apple is as different from another seed in that same apple or from another seed in an apple on the same tree, as children are different from each other and from their parents.  And this is where the human-apple tree mutualism becomes important in the spread of apples to every corner of the globe.

We humans perform much the same service that bees do in pollinating the apple’s flowers, by selective breeding for appealing varieties and then growing new trees of that variety from grafts merged onto hearty root stock.  In return, like the nectar and pollen the tree supplies to its pollinators, the apple tree repays its dispersers (animal and human alike) with crisp, sweet fruit that lasts several months when stored properly at cool temperatures.

What is it that makes apples so delicious and so appealing to us humans?

cross section of apple-

A cross section of a Honeycrisp apple (which I ate while writing this) shows the star-shaped endocarp housing the seeds. Each of the 5 chambers houses 1-2 seeds. The total number of seeds per apple (5-10) depends on the energy resources of the tree.

Around the star-shaped seed capsules are ten yellow-green dots that are the remnants of the flower stamens. The sepals (that surround the petals of the flower) are at one end of the apple, and the flower stem (now a fruit stem) is at the other. In between is the greatly expanded floral cup that grows up and around the ovary housing the soon-to-be seeds, and is filled with starch granules synthesized by the leaves over a summer’s worth of sunlight.  At the end of the summer as the skin takes on its rosy blush, those starch granules begin to break down to individual sugar molecules — and voila, sweet, juicy, crisp Fall apples are ready to be harvested.

honeycrisp apples

A sample of the harvest from just one of my dwarf honeycrisp trees. 

The Honeycrisp apple is an invention (!) of the University of Minnesota’s Agricultural Experiment Station Horticulture Research Center (quite a mouthful — pun intended).  As an experimental variety, it was almost cast aside because the tree was not cold tolerant and couldn’t survive Minnesota winters.  But the fruit was exceptionally pleasant, with large cells with stiff cell walls that stored great quantities of starch and water and a relatively thin skin that made biting into its crisp sweetness a gustatory delight.  Moving a few genes around to introduce cold heartiness made the next version of the Honeycrisp a winner — to markets and palates everywhere.