Searching for Minnesota’s Native Wildflowers

Minnesota Wildflower Book available today!

A beautifully illustrated, family-friendly guide to Minnesota’s native wildflowers and how to find them.

Phyllis Root and Kelly Povo chronicle the ten years they spent exploring Minnesota’s woods, prairies, hillsides, lakes, and bogs for wildflowers, taking pictures and notes, gathering clues, mapping the way for fellow flower hunters. Featuring helpful tips, exquisite photographs, and the story of their own search as your guide, the authors place the waiting wonder of Minnesota’s wildflowers within easy reach. Published by University of Minnesota Press, May 2018.

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Winter Wildflower Warmth

November 30, 2021

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

As November rolls into December with unseasonably mild weather, we’re looking back at the past summer and forward to what we might find when we search for the desiccated leaves and stems of last year’s flowers that we happened upon last December protruding above the snow (the flowers and leaves protruding, not us).

This past year we’ve been obsessed with finding as many as possible of Minnesota’s native orchids. On one trip we had an eight-orchid day, and on another trip when we visited Wisconsin with a knowledgeable friend we saw at least twelve different kinds of orchids in a single day. We’ve had to learn the scientific names of Platanthera orchids because we were tired of being baffled by whether we were looking at a tall green orchid, a tall bog orchid, a green bog orchid, a tall northern orchid, a tall green northern bog orchid, or any other combination of these common names, all of which have been used to describe both Platanthera huronensis and Platanthera aquilonis. Now we simply nod knowingly and say, “That’s a robust huronensis,” or “That is such a beautiful, delicate aquilonis.” Similarly, we were puzzled as to why the lesser round-leaved orchid (sometimes called the large round-leaved orchid) was much bigger than the round-leaved orchid. Now, whether other folks think of it as lesser or larger, we know it as Platantera orbiculata.

Of the 48 orchids native to Minnesota, we saw 37 in 2021. Many of them we’ve seen before 2021, but many others were new to us. We’ve given up hope of finding a couple of orchids that only grow in a few places or that are most likely extirpated from the state, but we were excited to learn that auricled twayblade, which we thought was a lost cause, grows in what will soon be a new Scientific and Natural Area on the North Shore. Now, auricled twayblade is at the top of the list for next year’s searches, along with the ever-elusive bog adder’s mouth.

We’ve also fallen in love with cedar swamps, where we’ve found bluntleaved orchid, lesser rattlesnake-plantain, calypso, green adder’s-mouth, ram’s-head lady’s-slipper, dragon’s-mouth, heart-leaved twayblade, round-leaved orchid, and striped coralroot.

Even though winter will soon be upon us, thinking about the wealth of wildflowers we’ve seen this past year (and the sometimes sweat-dripping weather we’ve searched for them in) will keep us warm in the frigid months ahead.

P.S. If you are looking for some wildflower winter warmth, too, be sure to stop by our annual holiday show this weekend and check out Kelly’s wildflower photos, Phyllis’s picture books including the most recent, Begin with a Bee, and our 2018 book, Searching for Minnesota’s Native Wildflowers. Bonfire, wine, and nummy noshes included! We hope to see you! (See invite below or email kelly@kellypovo.com for more information!)

A Rocky Day

October 30, 2021

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

Who knows where wildflower chasing will take us?  A trip to Minnesota’s only salt lake to check on red saltwort, a state-threatened plant, ended with us driving through one of Minnesota’s ghost towns looking at rock outcrops.

Although we’ve never caught the succulent-looking red saltwort that grows along Salt Lake’s shores actually turning red, we live in hope, and we drove west in and out of blankets of fog into a glorious October day.  When we had stopped at Salt Lake Wildlife Management Area (WMA) earlier this fall, drought had dropped the water level and the few saltwort we saw were still resolutely green.  Now the lake brimmed again, and we did find a solitary green saltwort plant with, we convinced ourselves, at least a few tinges of pink.

No matter.  This western Minnesota landscape has become one of our favorite flower-chasing places, so next year we’ll try again to catch red saltwort actually turning red.  

We had planned our drive back to stop at some of the gneiss rock outcrops strung along the Minnesota River Valley, a gift of the glaciers when glacial Lake Agassiz emptied out and glacial River Warren rushed to the sea, stripping away the earth to some of the planet’s oldest rocks. We’d been to Morton Outcrops Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) a few times, as well as Gneiss Outcrops SNA. Now was a chance to check out some of the other spots where the bones of the earth poked through.

First stop:  Blue Devil Valley SNA where we came across a crew contracted by the Department of Natural Resources to remove invasive buckthorn.  Here among gnarled oaks we clambered over rocks, finding large pockets of brittle prickly pear cactus nestled in moss as well as rock spikemoss, prairie onion gone to seed, and the leaves of Carolina cranesbill and Carolina anemone.  Many colors of lichens, including one vivid yellow-green, grew on the rocks, and ferns found a roothold in cracks.  A little river flowed below, the sky beamed blue, and we promised to come back again in the spring to see what might be flowering then.

Next on the list: Swedes Forest SNA, a huge, rounded, pink outcropping above a little lake where seven white swans swam and occasionally went bottom-up searching for food.  A few bluets bloomed in cracks, along with a few goldenrods and yarrow, and at the top of the rocks we found many clusters of brittle prickly pear cactus. This was a grander landscape, with a sweeping view from the top of the rocks at other, smaller, scattered outcrops that we’ll wander among on another visit.

Our list of rock outcrops to visit included Vicksburg County Park, but the maps on our phones kept showing us a cemetery instead of a park, so we had crossed it off our list until, driving down a back road to get to River Warren Outcrops SNA, we saw a sign:  Vicksburg County Park.  How could we not take that sharp right turn and drive past smaller outcroppings of rock, glimpsing larger ones along the edge of the Minnesota River? A sign at the park exit told the story of how this was once a thriving town until the railroad passed it by. Our phones weren’t wrong—there really is a cemetery there, and next time we are out among the rocks we’ll stop and explore more.

The day was stretching toward evening, and we had one more stop at River Warren Outcrops SNA.  In the parking area a hunter was unloading his gear, and, not wanting to be mistaken for deer, we assured him we wouldn’t be long.  We weren’t. A quick hike along a trail showed us rock outcrops that we’ll come back to explore, but it was time to head home.  The late light stretched ahead of us, setting the turning trees on fire, as we drove back east.

No red saltwort this trip, but there’s always next year.  And the next.  And the one after that.  So many places to explore, and who knows what we’ll find? We live in a place on a planet rich in possibilities.

Prairie Day

October 11, 2021

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

Even though it’s well into October and flowers have mostly gone to seed except for late bloomers like asters and some goldenrods, a prairie in fall is still a fine place to be, so on Sunday we headed out to visit two prairies not far from the Twin Cities. 

At McKnight prairie, wind bent the prairie grasses in graceful arcs, and white seed heads shone in the sunlight as brightly as new-fallen snow.  Sumac leaves burned red, a few goldenrod flowers still bloomed, and prairie blazing star gone to seed stood up like bottle brushes. The biggest surprise:  partridge pea still blooming, the yellow flowers catching the sunlight and holding it like cups of gold.  One black-eyed Susan still had its black eyed, yellow petaled flowers, and bumble bees buzzed in the few blue asters we came across.  We searched for whorled milkweed and butterflyweed, both of which we remembered seeing here before, but the only signs of milkweed were a few opened seed pods on tall, leafless, single stems—maybe Sullivant’s or common milkweed, but not whorled or butterflyweed.  

At our next stop, River Terrace Prairie Scientific and Natural Area, we did find whorled milkweed pods, some already spilling seeds to the wind, some still pointing upward like candelabra.  Here we identified dotted blazing star gone to seed, one of the blazing stars we’ve worked to identify this past year.   

The sky was autumn blue, the bright sun a photographer’s challenge, but the use of a sunshade and shoga (shade yoga where we contort our bodies to throw shadows on flowers for the sake of a picture) helped.

Spring, summer, fall, winter– any time of year the prairie holds surprises, and the wind under a wide prairie sky blows away all concerns, at least for a while, making any day a prairie day.

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