Saturday, August 11, 2018

In Stillness and Warmth There is Mosquito

On an unusual summer day I come to fully appreciate how little I venture into the hot season woods. Like winter, or maybe more so than winter, the summer time woods belongs to others. But on those two days, when temperatures plummeted into the fifties by night, only the sixties by day, with a supplementary breeze from the northwest, the woods invited my eyes and skin as if it were a day in early May or mid October.

Few mosquitoes made a stroll of getting to this laetiporous in the once wet middle slough.

How little I experience the woods in summer dictates my familiarity with its cycles of growth and senescence. On this walk I was thrilled to find plant species I have yet to see here, more vigorous growth than in the past, and less encroachment by aggressive species in some places. This could have been my own doing, attributable to three years of pulling garlic mustard, or was it the longer, cold winter that favors those that have evolved with it?

What I have experienced this year, one too busy with other activities to commit to the two month long pull, is roughly a ninety percent reduction in garlic mustard seedlings and a nearly one hundred percent reduction in second year rosettes. Why is this? Although it is tempting to enjoy the reprieve, it is more helpful to understand the process. Has our pulling had an effect? Or was it the temperature and frozen ground through out April (garlic mustard is some of the earliest of greens)? Is there a natural rhythm to biennial growth that gives way to an unproductive season?

This is not to say that there is no more garlic mustard in the woods, there is. A few lush, large-leafed specimens grow around the water line among large patches of Pilea pumila, clearweed, a native annual that sprouts in the heat of summer. Without the garlic mustard cover, it has been able to rise up from its own large bank of seeds in areas dominated by garlic mustard for years. Even the small patches of first year seedlings on barren slopes seem to be the exception proving the rule.

The swamp in the back has largely drained for the first time in three or more years. It is now a topography of muck covered in still-green duckweed shifting toward brown, nearly perfect growing conditions at the old waterline. The low water means we do not host wood ducks that have been in residence since we've moved here. The changing shoreline, three years wet, another dry, has created challenging conditions for almost anything, trees included, that isn't the nearly ineradicable reed canary grass, Phalaris arundinacea. If you do not know this plant, then it is likely not in your neck to the woods, yet. In the upper Midwest, where it is likely there are more pothole wetlands than anywhere else in the nation, it is still being planted as a wetland "forage" grass to make "useful" what was once too wet to grow anything a farmer might describe as useful.

Growing on the edge of the swamp: Pilea pumila, Leersia virginica, a few Bidens spp and Impatiens capensis
I was delighted to see these patches of healthy growth along the eastern swamp edge where the water line has receded. Now that the trees have died from inundation, more light enters here, giving a greater diversity of plants a shot at growing.

One of those plants is mad-dog skullcap, Scutellaria lateriflora.

Only a few stems and rhizomes at the edge of high water late last season, this mint is now such a prolific grower that, if I knew less, would think it could compete with reed canary grass. It is known to take advantage of disturbed sites, whether made or naturally occurring (this site is arguably human-altered). Although some have nosed out above the mad-dog, it has handily out-competed last autumn's planting of joe pye, iris versicolor, big bluestem, cardinal flower and verbena. Yet I accept this because, is a native.

Why is that? After all, ignorant of its origins, I might think this grass is doing a great job of greening up a mucky swamp of dead trees. It's the analysis that triggers concern, the conceptualization of homogeneous communities that also send up red flags, and maybe an aesthetics of bio-diversity that has me lurch into action.

That action can take the absurd form of a twenty by ten foot plastic sheet. Placed last summer to smother the reed canary grass, yet appears to have only made it stronger. Once the grass takes on these proportions it is impossible to eradicate by hand pulling. The dense mat of roots and rhizomes have such a tenacious grip that standing in the muck pulling on it produces a feeling of futility and a frustrating clump of leaves in hand. In placing my efforts elsewhere I may have to accept that what was once a forested vernal swamp is now, in wetter times, a clearing, an occasional pond, and quite soon a reed canary wet meadow.

Just up slope from the reed canary grass and mad-dog skullcap is a mighty patch of the weedy Canada thistle, Cirsium arvense. Whereas reed canary grass provides little support for other creatures, Canada thistle at least offers food for pollinators and birds. 

Despite the near drought conditions (you can still have one even when there are occasional heavy thunderstorm rains) that led to drying of the back swamp, water is flowing more heavily than is typical from the spring tree. Why is that? I have seen high water in the swamp with much less flow from this seep, only fifty feet from the swamp and about the same elevation, if not a few inches lower.

The spring tree seep is the only year-round flowing water in our woods, typically runs orange with oxidized iron fixed by iron consuming bacteria. Perfectly natural.

For us "coasters," where certain introduced insects, aquatic organisms, and plants have been around for generations, our relationship to them is different. Can you imagine the idea that Queen Anne's lace is an upcoming threat? How about the notion that your garden is suffering a never seen before invasion of Japanese beetles? Although some species are new to the area, plants like buckthorn have been spreading from yards and nurseries for long enough that a generation or two do not know what the woods looked like without it. In this slippage change becomes fixed and the concept of paradise is born as a way to process that faint, nearly imperceptible loss of the unknown.

Some images from around the new plantings...

American Bellflower, Campanulastrum americanum, tall, short, welcome.

Bottle Brush Grass, Elymus hystrix, great medium height grass in the shade.

Royal Catchfly, Silene regia, a red like the Scarlet Tanager, loved by humming birds, although not native to Minnesota, it does okay, if a little sickly in the leaf by flowering time.

We've had countless monarchs this year. They love the new plantings, as do swallowtails and more.

For about a month she rebuilt the web daily outside our kitchen window. Spider watching and dish washing -it's all the rage.

Side Oats Grama, Bouteloua curtipendula, or as I like to call it: Grandma.

The warm season grasses, unlike those of the lawn, have colorful flowers.