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Phenology Report, August 16 2022

top image is a small shrub with vibrant yellow leaves on red stems. The leaves are shaped like a football. The lower image also has vibrantly yellow leaves in a whorl on the stem, with five leaves per offshoot.
Plants with early-turning leaves

It's the week I've been dreading: John and Heidi are seeing signs of fall. I've noticed a few signs here in West St. Paul, but I was hoping it was drought-related, not a sign of summer ending! Still, it's good news for the many folks who love fall, with its beautiful colors, delicious apple cider, and cooler weather.

The spreading dogbane is one of the first plants to turn color at the close of summer. During his time as a rural postal worker, John noticed that the leaves on the dogbanes began turning yellow in mid-August. The spreading dogbane has leaves shaped like a football cut in half: an oval shape with pointed tips. They are also identifiable by their red stems and half-inch-long, white flowers lined with pink. These flowers are a big hit with butterflies! If you're a fan of spreading dogbane, you can collect some of the seed pods, which are 2-3 inches long and very narrow. After collecting the pods, let them ripen; then, you can remove the seeds. The seeds are attached to little wisps of cottony fluff; bust the pods open, let the seeds blow around in the preferred area, then wait! Just like that, you'll have a beautiful plant, plenty of butterflies, and an early indication of the end of summer right in your backyard.

Another plant that turns color early in the fall is the wild sarsaparilla. These are forest-floor loving plants with a cluster of broad leaves. Each leaf group has five leaves: three in a whorl in front and two leaves behind (photo below). They are just beginning to turn a purple-tinted yellow color. They will become quite noticeable over the next week or two.

The hazelnuts have been messing with John's head over the last few weeks! When they first ripened, he thought the squirrels, chipmunks, and associated critters would eat and cache the crop within a week or so. By the time the week passed, there were still plenty of hazelnuts to be found, so he had to recant that prediction. Now, the hazelnuts are finally tapped out three weeks after they first ripened! John says, "You'll have to wait until next year to get a daiquiri. I guess you could to go the store and get some hazelnuts, so you don't have to completely rule it out, but it's going to be hard to find native hazelnuts anytime soon." [Can someone fill me in here- are hazelnuts a traditional part of a daiquiri?]

Here's his list of wildflowers for the week in the Grand Rapids area:

About to bloom:

Blooming now:

Forming seeds:


  • Raspberries have just finished fruiting. The floricanes (woody, second-year flower- and fruit-bearing canes) are dying back, while the primocanes (fleshy-stemmed leaf-bearing canes in their first year) are growing green and profusely. These primocanes will be the flowering and fruiting canes next year. 
  • Chokecherries: Get out there and grab them while you can! You'll have to compete with the robins for them. ChokeCHerries are smooth on the bottom, unlike chokeBerries! 
  • Black chokeberries: These berries resemble the chokecherry but have a flower remnant on the bottom of the fruit (like an apple). 
  • Nannyberry: Still green 
  • Pagoda dogwood: These berries have turned a deep blue. John tasted one and said they're not very tasty; leave them for the bears! 

Grasses, reeds, and ferns:

  • Big bluestem: Look for 'turkey feet' seedheads, with three prominent seedheads coming off the stem (they look like a turkey track!). They have turned their namesake bluish tinge and will turn more burgundy as they mature. 
  • Crabgrass: These grasses are turning a burgundy/reddish color. 
  • Common reed: This bamboo-like reed is common in wet areas. It has just put up its seedheads. 
  • Bracken fern: These ferns are just beginning to turn brown. They are generally found individually, not in patches: look for a single stalked fern that splits into three stems, then further breaks down into pinnae (or leaves). 

    Big bluestem has three purplish seedheads running almost parallel to each other. Crabgrass is a messy bunch of green grass leaves with tall, brushy stalks hosting yellow sedheads. The common reed has its feet in the water, with yellow-green stems and tan seedheads. The bracken fern is green with three clear fronds emerging from a single stalk.

John has been hiking with some kids this week, and they had a great time outdoors! They found a lot of gray tree frogs. These frogs are very small (about an inch long). They also found green frogs, which have magnificent ear discs, or tympana. The tympanum transmits sound waves and functions above and below water. Look for the tympanum just behind the frog's eye, and admire the beautiful colors! To round out their frogging, John and the students found leopard frogs! If you want to follow their example, get out there around dawn or dusk, and don't forget to minimize skin-to-skin contact. Amphibians are incredibly sensitive to the oils and salts on your hands (even assuming you aren't covered in sunscreen and bug spray).

The grey treefrog is a small green frog with patches of grey and sticky toepads. The leopard frog is green with dark brown spots outlined in a neon-green color. The green frog is brownish with golden eyes. A circular skin-covered disk behind the eye of the green frog is labeled 'Tympanum'.

John's local murder of crows has grown from ten or so to over a hundred. He says they are "Marauding over the hayfield: I wouldn't want to be a grasshopper out there!".

Be sure to keep an eye out for butterflies: John has seen monarchs, mourning cloak butterflies, Compton's tortoiseshell butterflies, and four species of comma butterflies. The morning cloak butterflies and Compton's tortoiseshell butterflies you see this week will be the same individuals you'll see emerging from hibernation next spring! They hibernate as adults, then reappear in the early spring to lay their eggs.

The monarch is a vibrant orange butterfly with black wing edges and veins and bright white spots along the wing edges and body. The mourning cloak butterfly has dark brown wings edged with a band of black followed by a bright white band. The Compton tortoiseshell has orange wings speckled with black, with a black band around the wing edges.

John's been monitoring his neighborhood birds and has noticed the male rose-breasted grosbeaks have moved south for the winter. The females and juveniles are still around but will follow the males soon. Hummingbird migration has also begun: don't forget to get those feeders out there to help them along their journey!

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.
Charlie Mitchell (she/they) joined KAXE in February of 2022. Charlie creates the Season Watch Newsletter, produces the Phenology Talkbacks show, coordinates the Phenology in the Classroom program, and writes nature-related stories for KAXE's website. Essentailly, Charlie is John Latimer's faithful sidekick and makes sure all of KAXE's nature/phenology programs find a second life online and in podcast form.

With a background in ecology and evolutionary biology, Charlie enjoys learning a little bit about everything, whether it's plants, mushrooms, or the star-nosed mole. (Fun fact: Moles store fat in their tails, so they don't outgrow their tunnels every time conditions are good.)