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Phenology Report, May 31 2022

 American Emerald Dragonfly
iNaturalist user allan7
American emerald dragonfly

John begins this week with good news: the dragonflies are emerging, with sightings of variegated meadowhawks, Hudsonian whitefaces, and American emeralds. Take that, mosquitoes!

Our students in Northfield reported sightings of monarch butterflies and Canada tiger swallowtails (the big black and yellow butterflies often seen near puddles and woodlands). In Shakopee, our students mentioned the milkweed is growing quickly- hopefully, that will help the monarchs as they make their way north. John had a report of a monarch near Nevis, so they're certainly headed that way.

Butterflies aren't the only things wafting in the breeze; aspen seeds are also drifting around. When you see one of their tiny white seeds borne past you in the wind, see if you can catch it! If you look deep into the white cottony covering, you'll see a little brown speck that contains all the resources the tiny aspen tree needs to grow. The seeds are light (a pound of them would contain over 3 million seeds!), which helps them disperse to new regions. The 'fluff' itself doesn't have any nutrients or seed cells; its sole function is to catch the breeze and soar to new places. Though most aspens grow from shoots sent up by the root systems, a lucky seed or two will land in the right spot and grow into a new tree.

 A large clump of aspen seeds
Photo from iNaturalist user miss-shadyideas. Some changes were made.
A large clump of aspen seeds

Leaf budburst was 8 days late on the bigtooth aspen and 10 days late on the trembling aspen, with 12 days separating the events. On average, the quaking aspen leaves emerge around April 30th, while the bigtooth aspen leaves emerge on or around May 17th. So, in a typical year, there are roughly 19 days of separation; in years with delayed spring, like this year, the gap decreases considerably. Things may start slow, but they catch up quick! John expects things to be back to their regular schedule at the beginning of June. There's certainly evidence to that effect: John's friend Dallas recorded the earliest-on-record blooming of the spatterdock flowers! After months of observing events reaching latest-on-record levels, that has to feel good.

The balsam poplar is preparing for summer, with leaves about half their full size. The seed pods are swollen but not yet releasing seeds. To identify a balsam poplar, John recommends using a few different senses:

  1. You can recognize it by its smell (an apothecary describes the smell as "honey, caramel, and amber" and sells poplar bud perfume). 
  1. You can use sight by looking for the reddish-green leaves
  1. The leaves will feel resinous and sticky to the touch

What a sensory extravaganza!

Another tree to pay attention to right now is the red maple. The maple seeds' wings (or samaras) are turning bright red and getting ripe. Maple trees are dioecious, meaning that an individual tree will be male or female. If you find a tree forming seeds, it's a female; if it creates pollen, it's male. Nature is never simple, however; occasionally, you'll find a female tree with a male branch or two (or a male tree with a few female branches). John found such a tree last week. It was a male tree, turning green from the emerging leaves. However, a distinct reddish band was on one side: the red color came from seeds on female branches! Quite an exciting find!

 Red maple seeds with wings
Photo by iNaturalist user autrpy
Red maple seeds with wings

In contrast to the red maples, the silver maple trees are almost entirely seedless this year. (John estimates that his entire tree may produce only about a dozen seeds!) The male flowers were frozen during a cold snap, so very little pollen was available to fertilize the female flowers.

Under the trees, the shrubs are leafing out. The life cycle of the leaf begins with bud formation. The bud enlarges over time until it breaks open; this period of 'bud break' continues until the leaf's stem emerges. Once the stem is out, the plant is officially leafed out! As the season progresses, the leaves get bigger, reaching their full size in early summer. In fall, the leaves are discarded until the cycle begins again in the spring.

The leaves of the speckled alders, which already flowered in early spring, are getting very large. Last week, the red elderberries were in peak bloom, showing 2-4 inch conical flower clusters containing a hundred or more white flowers. When John was out yesterday, the flowers looked slightly past their prime; he found the same pattern in the fly honeysuckle. Similarly, the juneberry and American plum are past peak flower, and the pin cherry is getting there. The Northern hollies and pagoda dogwoods have leafed out and formed flower structures but aren't flowering. John estimates that the chokecherry will be the next shrub to flower!

Beneath the shrubs, the forest floor is covered with smaller plants. John reports that the starflower plants have produced flowers but haven't bloomed quite yet. The reddish-bronze early leaves of the wild sarsaparilla plants have emerged, though they haven't yet formed flower buds. Similarly, the plants that produce pink moccasin flowers are up (10 days later than typical), but the flowers haven't developed yet. John expects them to flower about two weeks later than average. So, if you love orchids, keep an eye out in June! Along with the pink moccasin flower, other orchids will be blooming, including the yellow lady's-slipper, the showy lady's-slipper, and the fairy slipper.

 Pink Lady's-slipper
Photo from iNaturalist user muskratman (great name!)
Pink Lady's-slipper

The Dwarf raspberries, also known as swamp raspberries, are in bloom; be sure to note them! They are 8-10 inches tall, with three toothy leaves per cluster. In a month, you can come back for the berries (John says they produce tasty fruit, but not a lot of it). John's wild strawberries were flowering last week, and many look like they've set fruit: he's hoping to have some ready-made snacks soon for his phenology walks! Sessile bellwort, windflower, and wood anemone are blooming, though he expects that this may be the last week. John reports that the ostrich ferns, interrupted ferns, and lady ferns have all opened (completely unfurled). Sensitive ferns are up but haven't opened yet.

Along the roads, you'll see patches of 12-18 inch plants with thousands of bright yellow flowers; these are the northern wintercress! According to John's records, they flowered three days later than average this year. Also known as garden yellowrocket, it's an invasive plant that thrives in disturbed soils near roadways. They might be pest plants, but they sure are beautiful!

John concludes by asking anyone interested in nature and phenology to send us some reports! We're hungry to hear more from you with the onset of summer. If you have kids, grandkids, or were a child at some point, we'd love to hear from you.

Our friends at Long Lake Conservation Center would remind us to "Jump in a bog hole, roll in some mud, and live connected!" See you next week!

You can email your observations, questions, anecdotes, fun facts, knock-knock jokes*, dreams, life goals, or grocery lists to

*some conditions apply.

As a mail carrier in rural Grand Rapids, Minn., for 35 years, John Latimer put his own stamp on a career that delivered more than letters. Indeed, while driving the hundred-mile round-trip daily route, he passed the time by observing and recording seasonal changes in nature, learning everything he could about the area’s weather, plants and animals, and becoming the go-to guy who could answer customers’ questions about what they were seeing in the environment.
Heidi Holtan is KAXE's Director of Content and Public Affairs where she manages producers and is the local host of Morning Edition from NPR. Heidi is a regional correspondent for WDSE/WRPT's Duluth Public Television’s Almanac North.
Sarah Mitchell (she/they) joined the KAXE team in February of 2022. Sarah creates the Season Watch Newsletter, writes segment summaries for the website, and coordinates our Engaging Minnesotans with Phenology project. With a background in wildlife biology, Sarah enjoys learning a little bit about everything, whether it's plants, mushrooms, aquatic invertebrates, or the short-tailed shrew (did you know they can echolocate?).