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Phenology Report, October 25 2022


It's the final phenology report of October! John's been away, leaving his local organisms unsupervised over the last few weeks. He's back now, so they better 'fall' in line quickly!

On Monday, John got out for a solid escapade through the woods. He tramped around for about two hours, following deer paths (or no paths) and just looking around! Among the many things that caught his eye were all the remaining green plants and evergreens. Evergreens generally grow in areas lacking in potassium or phosphorus: their leaves don't senesce (deteriorate), so they don't turn yellow and fall from the plant.

One group of green plants John observed was lilacs. John says, "Lilacs are not going to stay green. Well, they're going to stay green until they aren't." [That clears that up!] John explains that the leaves fade from heavy, thick summer greenery to a bit more yellow, then fall off the plant at that point. They don't drop their leaves earlier because they're non-natives and follow different environmental cues from our native species.

Buckthorn is another non-native that follows this pattern. John didn't see this noxious invasive species on his land because he's assiduously destroyed it wherever it popped up. Because it's so apparent this time of year (it has green leaves, while most native shrubs do not), it's a great time to clear it out of your local area! You can rip it out of the ground if it's small enough. If not, you can cut it and coat the stem with a herbicide or cover it with a can or a black plastic bag to deny it light. Some buckthorn shrubs will have berries: these are the ones you want to prioritize during your removal efforts. Otherwise, birds will come, eat the berries, and reseed them: creating more work for you!

Some friendlier green plants in John's woods included some forest floor plants: ground cedars and club mosses (Lycopodiums, also known as princess pines or ground pines). Ground cedar has the distinctive scales we associate with White Cedar but never grows more than 3-4 inches tall. The three clubmosses on John's property can be distinguished by their sporophytes (spore-bearing structures). The Stag's Horn Clubmoss has multiple sporophytes per stem, while the Arctic Stag's Horn Clubmoss has just one sporophyte per stem. The Bushy Clubmoss looks like a tiny pine seedling. (Look at the three species here).

The Spinulose Wood Fern is another plant that stays green throughout the winter (view it here). When John looked closely, he observed sori (spore-bearing structures) on the underside of the pinnae (leaves). While many stems survive the winter, John has never observed fertile spore-bearing stems to survive through the cold season: he'd like to hear about it if you have!

Additionally, John found Rattlesnake Plaintain (view here) and Trailing Arbutus (here). He's protected these plants with wire or by piling downed branches over them. They're a favorite food of deer, and as deer have become more prevalent in northern Minnesota, these plants have become rarer. Luckily, the ones that John protected are thriving!

That sums up the green plants that John found on his excursion. He urges us, "Look for green when you're out there, and think about how they might be affected by the environment that they are in."

The asters and goldenrods that heralded the fall season have all turned yellow in the last week (though many had gone brown long before). A few were still green two weeks ago: but not anymore! Northern Holly (aka Winterberry or Black Alder) has lost its leaves. It had been quite leafy up until last week, but now the berries are all that remain on the branches.

(Speaking of berries, the birds were bequeathed with a bountiful bonanza of berries this year! They have been eating from the Northern Holly and the ornamental crabapples in John's yard. He expects that there will be enough berries to last well into the winter!)

John also saw many birds on his adventure, including his resident Bald Eagles. The Great Horned Owls were calling last week, and he's seen many Ruffed Grouse foraging around his crabapple trees. He saw his first Snow Buntings on October 25th (they typically return around October 18th, so they were a little late!). He recommends watching for Snow Buntings: they forage in fields and are white with less noticeable brown markings on their back and head. They usually travel in large groups of at least 4-5 individuals, but flocks frequently consist of 50-75 birds.

The trees are getting bare, with only a few red oaks and birches clinging to their leaves. The willows are more persistent, especially the Weeping Willow: it will hold its leaves for quite a bit longer. John's Silver Maple has only 10-15% of its leaves left: it's been dropping them steadily for over a month, dirtying John's deck and creating a never-ending need to sweep. John noted that the hazels were completely bare on October 21st (typically, they drop their leaves around October 10th). They will flower again in the spring, usually in the first week of April! So, we have something to look forward to!

The Tamarack trees are at peak color, with gorgeous yellow needles. This season's growth, found at the end of the branches, turns a vibrant chartreuse (safety-vest green), while the inner needles turn yellow. Together, they create quite a visual effect! John stood there for five minutes, just enjoying the colors.

He encourages us to do the same: "Remember, the phenology in your yard is different from the phenology in my yard. So, get out there and look at your yard: who knows, maybe this is the fall where you'll actually write a note about one of those events, and it can lead you down a trail of satisfaction! I was so satisfied yesterday with my walk. I just felt really good. I was tired when I got done, but man, I had a great day. I hope you have one today!"

What a guy, that John Latimer. I join him in wishing you a great day, and I hope we can all channel our inner Latimer this week!

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?).