Moose Lake Star Gazette - Serving Carlton and Pine Counties Since 1895

By Kate Crowley
Moose Lake Star-Gazette 

Autumn is here

Going Nature's Way


October 3, 2019

I was hopeful a couple weeks ago that we would have an autumn with lots of bright red and orange leaves. One prognostication said that because we had so much rain this summer, the colors would be more intense, but I’m not seeing that in the overall forest landscape. Near Duluth I have seen a nice mix of red and orange, but around here yellow seems to be the predominant color.

There are exceptions though —some plants can be counted on to show maroon, scarlet, or other shades of red each year. These would be the Staghorn Sumac, Virginia Creeper, and Euonymus shrubs. The latter is sometimes called Burning Bush. You can see several very good examples right in downtown Moose Lake around the exterior of the Muni. They are already shedding some of their leaves, creating a blanket of red beneath them. If you are looking for a reliable splash of color in your yard each fall, consider planting Dwarf Winged Euonymus.

The Sumac has been changing color for a few weeks now. I have seen some that are a deep magenta, while others have an orange-red hue. I’m sure that the type of soil they are growing in influences the coloration of the leaves. Staghorn Sumac is the kind that we most often see growing in this part of the state. The upper branches are covered with short red-brown “hairs,” giving them the appearance of deer antlers in velvet. In late summer the conical flower clusters begin to turn a deep red color and will retain these fruits into the winter months. Apparently Blue Jays and Black-capped Chickadees will eat these fruits, but I suspect they are not high on the list of preferred foods.

Long ago, I learned that the outer coating of these fuzzy fruits contains absorbic acid, which is similar in taste to citric acid. It was when I was learning about wild foods that someone had me lick my fingers after rubbing some of the fuzzy fruit between them. The lemony tang was a pleasant surprise. It was popular in wild food classes to make a ‘sumac-ade’ by gathering a good number of these flower clusters, tying them up in cheesecloth, and soaking them in water for a certain amount of time. You would add sugar to the concoction as you would lemonade. It was a suitable substitute, and like lemonade had the benefits of vitamin C.

I have chosen not to make this beverage since learning that a small insect uses the flower heads to lay their eggs and provide the subsequent larvae with nourishment. They are tiny and not toxic, but the image doesn’t sit well when thinking about the process of making the drink and consuming it. But I have introduced our grandchildren and friends to this surprising taste whenever we have walked by a healthy stand of sumac. Try it sometime – take some of the berries off the cluster, roll them between your fingers – they should leave a smudge of color on your fingers – if they’re too dry there will be no taste. If you decide not to try this, you can still enjoy the brilliant red that takes over the leaves.

Virginia Creeper is the third guaranteed source of bright color in the fall. This climbing vine has recently shown up on our property. I have to believe it was brought here as an unintended consequence of birds that have eaten the dark-blue berries somewhere south of here and then deposited the seeds in their droppings. In the fall and winter, Robins, Wood Thrush and Pileated Woodpeckers will seek them out.

It was a shock last fall to discover one of these leafy vines climbing up the side of a tall red pine. In my experience Virginia Creeper was only found in deciduous woods. Like the Sumac, this plant will show bright red in its leaves early in the autumn. Only in this case it is a line of color running up the tree, rather than spreading across the crown.

While these are a pretty edition to the fall color display, I am somewhat concerned about the spread of this native plant. It is tenacious and can cover large areas in just one growing season. There is one particular Creeper growing near the base of a telephone pole in Moose Lake. During the summer, it crept across and over a number of shrubs in the planting next to the pole.

Its tenacity is borne out by the attachment to the tree or pole it is climbing. There are small branching tendrils that form adhesive disks at their tips and stick tight when they come into contact with a supporting object. These disks are only about an eighth of an inch in diameter, but have amazing strength. It is estimated that five disk-baring branches could support up to 10 pounds.

I just learned that Virginia Creeper is the main food plant for three common Sphinx moths. In early summer adult Sphinx moths lay their eggs on the plant. These moths are typically large and beautiful, so next summer I will be sure to look more closely at the five petaled leaves to see if these unique looking caterpillars are present. One of the reasons the moth got its name is because the caterpillar will raise up the front of their bodies when disturbed, making them look like an Egyptian Sphinx in its sitting posture. A pointed projection, like a horn, on their last body segment is another unique feature. When the caterpillars are down eating and have reached their maximum size, usually in later summer or early fall they go down the plant and bury themselves in the ground where they spend the winter as pupa. The following June, they emerge and the process is repeated.

There is so much beauty and mystery in nature. In these times of worry and change, we all need to spend more time observing and appreciating the magnificence around us.


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