Written by Jenny
During the spring and summer, many guests have enjoyed the beauty of our gardens before, or after, their visit to the cave. The colors and textures of the various plants added excitement and beauty throughout the long days of the summer. Now those days are becoming shorter, but we can still enjoy the remaining flowers while listening to the steady hum of insects during the last days of summer. We may not want to admit it, but we know that cooler weather is coming soon.
As the colorful petals fade and disappear, a new beauty emerges. In the opening spaces, we see butterflies and insects flutter about on the remaining flowers while preparing for their upcoming migration or hibernation. The birds too know that cooler times are coming. They race from flower to flower, enjoying the bounty of seeds and easier-to-spot insects. And the team here at Cave of the Mounds begins to look forward to our favorite fall and winter plants and phenomena.
Astor plants flower from late August through October, providing pops of color just as other flowers are going dormant for the season. These late-season blooms provide habitat and food for insects and birds. They also add fun and interest to our landscape at a time when we might be lamenting the end of the summer. Look for these tall plants, in a variety of colors, mainly in out Prairie Restoration Area.
There are numerous varieties of trees scattered throughout the grounds. Who doesn’t look forward to the changing display as each variety turns its signature fall color? With leaves from golden yellow to radiant red, the trees dazzle us every year. While most are looking upwards, many of us also notice the ground as it becomes littered with acorns. The acorn caps sit jauntily atop the seeds and provide a symphony of sounds as they drop to the ground or crunch underfoot. Small animals can be seen gathering acorns and seeds as they prepare themselves for the coming winter.
Prairie grasses have reached their full height. Their heavy seed pods skim some of us on the shoulders or tower over our heads as we walk through the pathways and trails. These seeds are rich in burgundies and deep reds or browns, drawing our eyes in while providing nutrient dense packets for migrating animals and laying the foundation for continued growth next summer.
Flowering milkweed adds color and texture to a late summer garden while providing important habitat to monarch butterflies. In the fall, the seed pods from milkweed become noteworthy in and of themselves. The long narrow pods fill with seeds and milkweed floss. As the seeds mature the pods burst open when the fluffy white floss expands. This floss helps the seeds disperse in the wind. It also creates a distinctly fuzzy pod to look for each autumn. I particularly love seeing open milkweed pods in the early morning when they are covered in dew.
Even though the deciduous trees have lost their leaves they are still quite magnificent. Without leaves to distract us, the bark of each tree has a chance to shine. The relatively smooth bark of a young maple or hawthorn tree can be compared to the ridges and valleys of an old oak. Careful observers see the various shades of grays and browns contrasted against the white snow and blue sky. Without the cover of leaves to hide behind, it becomes easier to catch a glimpse of larger animals such as deer as they graze and move through the forested areas.
Fresh snowfall on green branches are a favorite sight for many of us who grew up in snowy places. These images are romanticized in countless paintings for good reason. Those of us with cozy warm houses might see only the beauty on the trees but birds and other animals appreciate the shelter and food sources provided under those same branches. These trees are important landscape features in a diverse ecosystem.
SEED PODS AND BERRIED BRANCHES
Plants use the energy they produce to make seeds, berries, fruits, flowers, and underground tubers. When the flowers fade, we can still catch glimpses of the seeds and berries that nourish the landscape and propagate the future. Coneflowers and compass plants leave behind a legacy of seed pods that provide habitat and food during the lean winter months. Berries pop on the landscape when the leaves have fallen and scattered in the wind. Long stalks keep the seeds and fruits high above snow drifts to create perches for active birds. These stalks also provide starting points for industrious spiders to build webs in the fall and become foundations for frosty illustrations in the winter.
Winter mornings arrive late, and evenings start early. Shorter days provide ample opportunities for us to see the blended colors that connect the days to the nights. Visitors at the end of the day may step into the cave while the light is bright but emerge in the dusky glow of the setting sun. You might catch a glimpse of the moon as it shimmers between the barren tree branches. Or maybe you’ll find time to enjoy the long shadows dancing on the snow when winds blow the seed pods and tree branches.
ICE AND SNOW
There is a quiet beauty in a fresh blanket of snow. The sparkling crystals shine like diamonds. The crunching underfoot connects us to the earth. Animal tracks and tunnels remind us that we are not alone on the landscape. Hoar frost and rime ice paint tree branches, grasses, seed pods and outdoor structures. The delicate crystals melt in the warming sun, reminding us to appreciate the most ephemeral displays because there is no guarantee they remain. Icicles hint at the shape of the stalactites underground.
Cave of the Mounds remains a steady year-round environment underground, but the above ground landscape changes and dazzles us throughout every season. Our grounds are as beautiful in the fall and winter as they are in the spring and summer. When you come to tour the cave, be sure to schedule time to enjoy the nature trails and embrace the allure of the changing landscape.