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Fluffy seeds cast to the wind

A fireweed with pods with the fluffy seeds. Pods are very thin and curled. (Photo by Larry Weber)1 / 2
Milkweed pods open to allow fluffy seeds to drift in the wind. Note the parachute-like appearance. (Photo by Larry Weber)2 / 2

The mild autumn of this year continues. According to the weather service, the first third of the month was the warmest for this time in November on record. And though we have received some colder conditions since then, we continue to be far above normal.

During many years, by the time we reach the third week of November, we are dealing with freeze-up of not only the ponds and swamps, but also several of the region's lakes. Despite the recent snow, we are below the usual and much behind last year. Indeed, some years the Northland has recorded subzero temperatures by this time.

I like to see what I call a "healthy November," ice on the wetlands and frozen ground before we get a lasting snow cover. That could still happen this year, but so far the days remain mild. The pleasant time of AutWin has been prolonged.

Walking in the open woods or along the roads continues to be very inviting. And with little or no snow and ice, biking has been fine as well. While doing these activities in recent days, I have seen many signs of the lingering fall. At one lakeshore I observed a frog and a turtle still active. Crane flies and moths were in flight while a woolly bear caterpillar crossed the road.

On the open flat surfaces in the sunlight, butterflies and dragonflies basked in the warmth. In the yard, chipmunks, often asleep by now, are still scampering about. And I saw a bat feeding at dusk just last week.

A closer look along the roadsides reveals a few flowers are holding blossoms: clovers, black-eyed susans, tansy, yarrow and the ubiquitous dandelions. But it is the other wildflowers here that I prefer to look at now, the plants that are in seed.

The colorful flowers that we saw at these sites during many of the summer days were the beginning of the plants' reproductive time. Using colors and odors, the blossoms attract the attention of insects that are so abundant during the long warm days of summer. Bees, wasps, butterflies, moths, flies and myriads of other six-legged critters came by. Some feed on the nectar provided by the plant; others seek the yellow dusty pollen. Often unknown to the insects, this pollen is transferred from the male part to the female part, either on the same plant or a nearby one, and insures fertilization of the new seed.

The insects remain active all day. I have noted that frequently bumblebees that were all over the goldenrods during the day, will go under stems or leaves for the night and immediately continue their pollination activities the next day. As the season passes, the flowers fade and the new growth forms mature seeds. Along the roads, we now see that the flowers of summer are the seeds of fall.

Pollination happens on the flowers either by the wind carrying it to its intended site or the plant enticing animals to do the work for them. Such is also the situation with mature seeds of autumn. Many seeds are formed in brightly colored berries or fruits that get consumed by animals, usually small mammals or birds, and so get carried to another location for the chance to grow.

Others, such as tansy or sunflowers seeds, get eaten by birds without being colorful. Burdock and sticktights have seeds that cling to the hairs of animals, or our clothing, where they are dispersed as well. We return home and see these unwanted seeds hanging on us, so we pull them off and throw them away, exactly what the plant wants. And then there are those that cast their seeds to the wind.

While biking on the Willard Munger trail a few days ago, I saw the abundance of these plants along the trailside. Many were shaped enough like their earlier flowering form to be recognized as asters and goldenrods. I remembered the days of white, purple and yellow flowers of the late summer. Others here, fireweeds and milkweeds, did not look much like their flowers that they held in July.

Back during the hot days of summer, I passed by here to see the purple flowers of both of these plants. Both grew tall in clumps and though both have "weed" as part of their name, they are native. And both now open their pods to let out seeds attached to fluffy material that will drift in the wind. Pods of milkweed are thick and robust while those of the fireweed are thin. Both open as the days of autumn get drier and the seeds get exposed to the winds of autumn.

Milkweed pods keep their shape as they open; fireweed pods curl. It has been said that the fluffy attachment is like that of parachutes. They are highly effective in dispersing the seeds and the pods will empty as we proceed through the days of late fall. Next summer they will bloom here and elsewhere again, but I enjoy seeing these fluffy seeds and their flights now.

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods” and “Webwood.” Contact him c/o budgeteer@duluthbudgeteer.com.

Larry Weber

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him c/o budgeteer@duluthbudgeteer.com.

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