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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Summer Unwinding

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

We are closing in on the end of September, close to the end of wildflower searching season, but the prairie is far from done.  On a glorious afternoon we headed down to Hyland Lake Park Reserve to see what was still in bloom from a visit a few weeks ago and found a brilliance of asters–pink, purple, white, blue all abuzz with bees. Goldenrod, too, some plumes with a dozen or more pollinators on them:  bumblebees, honeybees, butterflies.

Along the path through the prairie Indian grass and big bluestem waved golden in the prairie breeze, a cloud of dragonflies rose up in front of us, and down in the grasses we discovered both  bottle gentians and also yellow gentians, almost done blooming. Although we didn’t see any bumblebees fighting their way into these gentians, the bees are these flowers’  primary pollinators:  no other bees are big enough to pry their way in and out of the closed blossoms.

The flowers we’d seen blooming a few weeks before—monarda, coneflower, spotted Joe-pye weed, prairie onion, butterfly-weed, great blue lobelia, round-headed bush clover– were mostly gone to seed. Fall is ahead, and winter follows, but there are still plenty of days worth of wildflower watching to do.  The bees and butterflies appreciate the late-season blooms.

And so do we.


Under Umbrellas

September 1, 2019

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

We couldn’t stand not to do more wildflower searching on this long holiday weekend, and a chance encounter with an I–naturalist posting led us to Hyland Lake Park Reserve in search of yellow gentian.  We hoped to beat the rain that threatened, but we and the rain arrived at the park at the same time.  Undeterred and under umbrellas, we hunted for the gentian and found it exactly where I-naturalist had marked it.

The rain came down harder, but Kelly had rain gear in her car, including rubber boots and an extra coat for me (who had forgotten everything in my excitement to go find another new-to-us flower), and we followed a trail into the restored prairie area where we saw aster, monarda, goldenrod,  spotted Joe-pye weed, black-eyed Susan, big bluestem, blazing star (one sheltering a monarch waiting out the rain), prairie onion, butterfly-weed, and round-headed bush clover. Making our way back through the tall grass (my pants soaked to my knees and beyond), we came across another yellow gentian, then another, and another and another—maybe fifty different plants in all.  Among plants around the nature center we saw ironweed, obedient plant, and turtlehead, and under a thistle blossom a cluster of three bumblebees waited for drier weather.

Soaked but beaming, we headed toward home in search of dry clothes and coffee just as the rain stopped.

New Places, New Plants

August 31, 2019

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

We left before sunrise and reached Blaine Wetlands Sanctuary just as a spectacular red sunrise lit up the sky and turned ridges of clouds a deep, glowing rose. As the day lightened, we followed a boardwalk into the sanctuary past vervain, goldenrod, boneset, jewelweed, fleabane, aster, and the rich, subtle colors of fall grasses.  We were in search of a spot that a wildflower expert had told us about where we hoped to see some rare plants, and a trail away from the boardwalk led us in the right direction.  The ground underneath our feet felt spongy and soft, covered in places with moss. Overhead two sandhill cranes flapped and glided, conversing in clacking calls.

Kelly spotted a deer, I saw a frog, we both spied a snake.  Tiny bugs buzzed, and grasshoppers flung themselves through the air. When we came to our destination, we found pink blossoms of field milkwort among grass-leaved goldenrod, aster, meadowsweet, spotted Joe-pye weed, and blue vervain, along with other flowers we have yet to identify. (More information on the Blaine Wetlands Sanctuary)

Our next stop (recommended by the same expert) was Wollans Park, a restored wetland where sandhill cranes glided down to disappear in the grasses.  What had once been mostly reed canary grass and buckthorn was now a rich mix of  boneset, spotted Joe-pye weed, goldenrod, hoary vervain, blue vervain, grass-leaved goldenrod, meadowsweet, arrowhead, and aster as well as purple false foxglove and slender-leaved false foxglove, two new-to-us species. Many narrow leaves hinted at an abundance of lance-leaved violets, a state threatened species, and when spring comes again we’ll come back to see them in bloom.  Many thanks to the people who brought back this wetland rich in native plants and sandhill cranes.

We were close enough to Carlos Avery Wildlife Management Area (WMA), another place we’d never been before, to do some drive-by wildflower searching. We were barely inside the border of the WMA when we stopped to admire whorled milkweed and exuberantly blooming round-headed bush clover, and every few minutes we stopped again to get out and look more closely at flowers we had spied. Dusty pink spotted Joe-pye weed raised its blossoms amid yellow goldenrod and white aster and boneset, a quilt of color, and we found white turtlehead and calico aster, two more new-to-us flowers. At a path where we stopped to stretch our legs, we stumbled on the small, spiraling flowers of ladies’-tresses orchids, either Great Plains ladies’-tresses or nodding ladies’-tresses.  Great Plains ladies’-tresses smells like almond but has no leaves when it flowers, while nodding ladies’-tresses still has leaves when they flower; these flowers smelled almondy and had leaves.  Whichever they were, we counted twenty-five of them along the grassy trail.  One last surprise awaited us, a bottle gentian, its blue blossoms almost hidden at the side of the trail. And everywhere we saw bumblebees hard at work in the flowers.

This was our first visit to all three sites, but it won’t be our last.  We drove home feeling rich and full after a splendid wildflower day as summer winds into fall.

A Day Well Spent

August 16, 2019

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

The day began with darkness and damp as we headed out at 5 a.m. for Seminary Fen Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) near Chaska, eager to catch the first daylight.  Fens are one of our rarest wetlands and we were eager to explore. The fen itself lay below a prairie area where goldenrod, monarda, and evening primrose bloomed, but try as we might, we couldn’t find a way down to the fen through the barrier of buckthorn trees.  Path after path ended in a tangle of branches and thorns, and by the time we finally broke through to the edge of the fen and crossed a creek into soggy, hummocky ground we had plenty of daylight but no flowers. It was a sweet morning anyway, fun to be up in the dark and searching for wildflowers, and we headed home knowing we’ll try again another time.

Fast forward an hour: Kelly calls me and says, “What about Falls Creek?  We could see if downy rattlesnake plantain is still blooming.”

“Great,” I say.  “I’ll see you at noon.”

Which is how we found ourselves leaving the sunny, hot prairie of Whispering Pines Park in Scandia behind us and wandering in the coolness under the tall trees of Falls Creek SNA.  We’ve been to Falls Creek many times before but seldom at this time of year—forests are usually for spring flowers, and once the canopy leafs out most flowers have finished their business.  We saw many leaves we could identify even though the plants were done blooming:  lily-leaved twayblade, prunella, starflower, bloodroot, Canada mayflower, hepatica, wild ginger. Some plants, like bluebead lily and Jack-in-the-pulpit, had distinctive seeds that helped identify them.

Along the path we also found several populations of downy rattlesnake plantain orchid that we’d never seen before, their distinctive green and white leaves vivid against the forest floor.  And finally, towards the end of the trail, we found a rattlesnake plantain orchid flower spike, then three more orchids blooming, then six more.  We felt rich in rattlesnake plantain.

We’ve hardly ever seen other people at the SNAs we visit, but a whole group of them came up the trail and turned out to be folks from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources on a hike. Experts on flowers, rushes, sedges, butterflies, geology—we were awed by the knowledge among them. When we learned that some of them had been instrumental in preserving Falls Creek as an SNA, we were grateful beyond measure.

From darkness and damp to dappled sunlight and orchids, a day well spent.

Among the Islands

August 9, 2019

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

Each summer for the last few years I’ve been lucky enough to go sailing with friends in Lake Superior. This year my friend Mary and I joined Mark, the sailboat-owning friend, at Rossport, Ontario, to sail on Lake Superior.  Wind, sun, sailing, hiking, rock hunting, swimming, wildflower searching, even a sauna—what better way to spend the days of summer?

On the way north to meet Mark, Mary and I stopped in Grand Marais where common butterwort’s yellow leaves crept over the rocks and tiny-flowered Hudson Bay eyebright bloomed. Both are arctic relicts or disjuncts, those plants that, thanks to the cold, wet, harsh climate of Superior’s shore, grow far from their main habitats farther north.

As we sailed we stopped to explore and hike among the scattered islands, where many of the flowers growing in woods and on rocks were familiar faces from Minnesota searches. It makes sense: flowers don’t stop at borders or even have to show their passports, and the forests and bedrock that make up Minnesota’s north shore don’t stop there, either.  We saw bunchberries, a few blooming but most already gone to red-berry seed; starflowers gone to seed; Canada mayflowers done blooming; the remnants of a lady’s-slipper orchid; bluebead lily with its blue beads of seed; one-flowered pyrola; wild sarsaparilla; Indian pipe; Labrador tea; alpine bistort; and blueberries (alas, not quite ripe yet but growing in abundance).

At CPR harbor we took a three-pitch hike with fixed ropes to the top of a bluff and passed at least fifty lesser rattlesnake plantain orchids blooming in the green, green moss. On a rocky projection in Woodbine Harbor we found three-toothed cinquefoil, shrubby cinquefoil, upland goldenrod, harebell, some new kind of saxifrage, and a beautiful purple vetch-like plant abuzz with bumblebees.  At Battle Island, our last stop before returning to Rossport, we came across black crowberry, Hudson Bay eyebright, and, on a rocky cliff slick with rain, encrusted saxifrage with its silvery-edged rosette of leaves—all arctic relicts.

I came for the sailing and the friendship (and the beaches rich with Lake Superior rocks), and I also found familiar flowering friends and new ones among the islands’ woods and rocky shores.



A Day Full of Prairies

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

July 27, 2019

This summer has been busy with bookstore visits, work, and just general life, so Kelly and I have been doing some separate wildflower searching as each of our schedules allows.   Today we finally had a chance to visit prairies together—three prairies, actually, and one sand barrens.

We started early and headed to Pin Oak Prairie Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) just outside of Chatfield on a morning sunny and cool and full of birdsong.  We had come with directions to help us find clasping milkweed and wooly milkweed (both of which, we knew, were no longer in bloom and so were trickier to spot).  We wandered through oak savannah, woods, and prairie until we found where our directions said these milkweeds grew. The sweet scent of common milkweed flowers filled the air, and a tiny frog sat on a milkweed leaf in almost perfect camouflage. We searched the hillside, which was awash with monarda, gray-headed coneflower, and whorled milkweed but no wooly milkweed or clasping milkweed could we find. No matter, we’ll come back earlier in the summer next year when the blooming plants might be easier to spot.

Our next prairie was in a ditch we spotted along the highway, rich with monarda, gray-head coneflower, rattlesnake master, culver’s root, and blazing star.  Across the highway in another roadside ditch we found vervain, more monarda, leadplant, pale-spike lobelia, lots and lots of rattlesnake master, Sullivant’s milkweed, and a cluster of leaves and seed pods that we tentatively identified as small white lady’s-slipper gone to seed.  Who knows what other wildflower wonders might grow in our roadside ditches and rights-of-way?

As a break from prairie in the heat of the day we stopped at Rushford Sand Barrens SNA and followed a trail that led straight up through the woods, down across a small prairie, and up through woods again until, looking up at how much more up was ahead, we turned around.  We were still on the hunt for clasping milkweed, but what we found instead was the “other monarda,” spotted beebalm, growing in the dry and sandy prairie section of the SNA.  Although many of the prairie and woodland flowers we saw had gone to seed, we also found lots of native lupine leaves and vowed to come back next spring to see the lupines in bloom.

Our third and last prairie of the day was Mound Prairie SNA, which is made up of three different goat prairies on separate hillsides.  We climbed only one hillside, and if we thought that Rushford Sand Barrens went up and up, that was nothing compared to Mound Prairie.  I used hands and feet  to scramble up the steep hillside past partridge pea, flowering spurge, monarda, spotted beebalm, whorled milkweed, lead plant, false blue indigo, stiff goldenrod, and coreopsis. Dotted across the hillside was a new-to-us blazing star, cylindrical blazing star, blooming brilliantly fuchsia.

High up on the hill we discovered green milkweed and, finally, narrow leaf milkweed with a seed pod, a plant that Kelly had seen in bloom a few weeks before and which was now, without its flowers, almost indistinguishable from the prairie grasses around it.

The sun beat down, the steep hillside sloped away, and I perched blissfully next to narrow leaved milkweed in its only known place in Minnesota. Saturated with sun and searching, we headed off to organic pizza at Suncrest Gardens.  A day well spent, splendid with wildflowers and friendship and laughter.   A day rich in prairies rich in flowers.




A Prairie Fourth of July

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

July 4, 2019

From the road, McKnight Prairie, an outlier of the Carleton Arboretum, looks like nothing more than two green hills set down amid farm fields. But, we weren’t even halfway up the first hill before I’d filled a page of field notes of flowers seen, among them Canada milkvetch, prairie phlox, clammy ground cherry, wild four o’clock, and pale lobelia.

The list just grew longer at the top of the hill with leadplant, prairie rose, larkspur, showy tick trefoil, and white prairie clover.  At the very peak of the first hill the beautifully orange butterfly-weed appeared, with plants scattered down the hillside and into the far field, where they mixed with yellow black-eyed Susan and coreopsis and white yarrow and daisy fleabane in a crazy quilt of colors.

Halfway up the second hill in a sandy blowout we found plains prickly pear cactus.  We had come with high hopes that the plants would be in bloom, and we found pale papery yellow blossoms perched on top of spiked pads just opening in the sunshine.  Many buds looked to open soon.  Hoots and high fives—our last trip to western Minnesota to see ball cactus blooming wasn’t a success, but here, closer to home, plains prickly pear flowers made us very happy.

A month or so ago these hillsides were covered with swaths of kittentail, prairie smoke, and violets. Now only leaves and seed heads showed where these early spring flowers had bloomed. Every day the prairie makes itself anew, and we will come back in a week or two to see what new treasures it offers.

On the way home we detoured to River Terrace Prairie Scientific and Natural Area, a place we’ve only ever visited in early spring for the pasqueflower and kittentail that grow there.

Here, too, the prairie had remade itself, with scatterings of harebells, spikes of larkspur, and bright bursts of puccoon. Whorled milkweed was about to bloom, kittentail had gone to seed, and in the middle of the path we found a milkweed we’d never seen before and identified as green milkweed with flowers just about to open.  Here, too, we’ll return to see the milkweeds in flower and any other surprises this hillside prairie holds.

On the hike back to the car what looked like a great spangled fritillary butterfly fluttered past us.  Two prairies, blooming cactus, a new-to-us milkweed–what better way to celebrate a spangled fourth of July?

Please note: McKnight is a fragile prairie site, carefully maintained and restored so everyone can learn about and appreciate prairies.  And, although it is open to the public, please be attentive to where you step and stay on the path!  Groups of ten or more need to register their visits here. Collecting of any plant or animal, including seeds, is strictly prohibited. Protect native wildflowers and McKnight Prairie!

A note from the Puzak Family Director of the Cowling Arboretum: please avoid entering the sandy areas where the soil and small plants and animals are especially fragile. Pets are not allowed at McKnight Prairie. While a simple footpath exists at McKnight, is is not mowed or maintained. We also encourage you  to visit the prairie and forest restorations at the Carleton College Arboretum in Northfield where many prairie species can be seen. There are 15 miles of maintained trail that provide ample opportunity for many nature observations. The Arboretum is open every day dawn to dusk at no charge.