For Love of Earth

Magnolias blooming in Longenecker Horticultural Gardens

Magnolias blooming in Longenecker Horticultural Gardens

The first and most obvious place to go on Easter Sunday’s tour was to the magnolia section of the Arboretum’s Longenecker Horticultural Gardens (LHG). In the previous few days, those trees had burst into spectacular bloom. Lots of weekend photo-ops!

We spent some time simply appreciating their beauty. The Arboretum’s horticultural garden collection includes some 85 different cultivars of magnolia; the earliest-flowering ones tend to be the pink and white specimens, with the rarer lemon-yellow magnolias coming along later. In fact, after we’d inhaled our fill of the fully-blooming trees, we wandered over to one that held large yellow buds. I suspected it was one of the series of magnolias that have women’s names, and sure enough, a peek at its name tag proved this tree to be ‘Elizabeth.’

And getting up that close revealed another fascinating thing: that particular tree is absolutely RIDDLED with yellow-bellied sapsucker holes! Sapsuckers, as you might expect, drink tree sap. When they drill, they make one hole, then methodically move over about half an inch and drill another. This process repeats 8–10 times, by which point sap has begun to flow from the earliest holes. The bird then goes back to its starting point and imbibes, moving to each hole in turn. Usually it is satiated enough that it does not need to do any more drilling. Thus we see neat lines of holes going partway around the trunk of a tree, like a short string of beads.

What’s unique about the ‘Elizabeth’ magnolia is that it has DOZENS of such lines—some of them dark, weathered, and old, and some obviously freshly made. It’s clearly a favorite! All I can say is that it must have especially sweet and delicious sap!

We next quickly looked at two yellow-flowering shrubs—the Cornelian cherry dogwood (Cornus mas) and the spring witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis). Attractive enough, and native here, but not as fancy as the magnolias. Nor as the serviceberry (Amelanchier). This smallish tree—also native to Wisconsin—currently sports clusters of lovely white flowers. It’s called shadbush by some, and Juneberry by others.

Pausing a moment by the Katsura tree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum), we could see fine, spiky, magenta-colored growths in clusters of four on the otherwise barren twigs. Though not immediately obvious, these too are flowers—female flowers, to be specific. The Katsura is dioecious (“two homes”), meaning it has separate male and female trees; these tiny purplish structures are the stigmas. If the wind brings them pollen from a male Katsura tree (whose flowers feature stamens and anthers), fertilization can occur and a fruit will form.

LHG’s male Katsuras are some distance away, and much smaller and more recently planted, than the majestic female tree near the magnolia section. I confess I don’t know how likely it is that a hook-up will happen.

Glancing ahead, I saw a sizeable patch of pink beyond the next line of shrubs. I thought it was a person wearing a rose-colored T-shirt, but no! It was a blooming rhododendron! Mid-April is early for these to be in flower; we found three different ones in bloom. The azaleas—also in the genus Rhododendron, just to be confusing—will open a little later. Garden curator David Stevens tells me that another good way to tell the two apart is that rhodies have ten stamens per flower, while azaleas have only five.

We then left the more-or-less manicured environment of LHG and detoured into the woodland area of the Wisconsin Native Plant Garden. There we were richly rewarded: we found blooming toothworts (Cardamine concatenata), Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria), Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), and false rue-anemone (Enemion biternatum), along with many of the umbrella-shaped leaves of Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum).

Skirting the forsythia area and nipping into Gallistel Woods, we saw that trout-lily (Erythronium sp.) has begun its blooming period. We saw a few white flowers, and one yellow one. Trout-lily’s mottled leaves can be hard to spot against the brown leaf duff on the forest floor—for us, and also for hungry grazing animals, which obviously works to the plant’s advantage. Along the Gallistel trail, we re-encountered most of the wildflower species we’d met in the Native Plant Garden, plus budding prairie trillium (Trillium recurvatum).

By extending our tour time slightly, we got as far as the Icke Boardwalk. There we heard a few chorus frogs (the classic description of their call is that it sounds like running your fingernail over a fine-toothed comb), and observed the muskrat mounds on either side of the boardwalk. I have not seen any activity at or around those structures yet this spring. I’m sure things are happening, but they’re inside the mound or underwater and thus out of our sight.

Sadly, the sandhill crane nest in the same area stood empty on Sunday. Just six days earlier, a visitor had shown me her photo revealing two eggs in that nest; by Thursday, the eggs were gone. At the time of our hike, the adult birds were nowhere to be seen, either. Have they given up? Relocated? Were they just out for a snack?

What they probably have NOT done is to split up—cranes mate longterm. I found myself wondering if this pair could possibly produce another clutch of eggs this season. According to the Environmental Education for Kids website, sandhills experience a 30-day gestation, with the babies born in May, and they can re-nest if predators steal their eggs. A hopeful thought.

Our group then hastened back to the Visitor Center. We were not quite done with chorus frogs, however! In the small circular rain-garden pond that lies immediately north of the building’s back door, we could hear one more, singing his passionate ode to spring. We couldn’t find the little fella, small and brown and well-camouflaged as this species is, but we knew he was there.

I can’t resist adding this personal coda: pinned to my naturalist’s hat is a certain green button. It dates to Earth Day One, when I was a leggy, idealistic 19-year-old and bought it from a group of young environmentalists at a table outside the student union at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. “Buy a button, save the planet,” they said.

My button is a cultural artifact now, nearly half a century old; I tell its story every year as Earth Day approaches. But this time, someone in the tour group said, “I was one of those students!” It turns out that John Reindl, a member of the Friends of the Arboretum, an active volunteer, and a frequent participant in our Sunday tours, belonged to the UWM student environmental organization in those years and remembers April 22, 1970 very well. Not only that, but the name of the society was . . . drum roll please . . . the Aldo Leopold Conservation Club. Leopold, of course, was the Arboretum’s first research director. And for twelve years now, in our auditorium, I have been hosting an annual Leopold read-aloud on the first weekend in March, as part of Aldo Leopold Weekend in Wisconsin.

Don’t you just love how things circle around? Seasons—cycles—growth—rebirth—everything? Maybe we can save the planet after all!

—Kathy Miner