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. Check out the book! Buy the book today!
The haze from Canadian wildfires turned the sunrise vivid as we headed out for a day of wildflower chasing. First stop: Oronoco Prairie Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) where part of the prairie had been burned since our last visit, leaving the ground clear for thousands of rattlesnake master to make their pointy appearance. Grasses shimmered with dew, hoary puccoon bloomed yellow-orange, prairie violet punctuated the new green, and lousewort spun its spirals of yellow petals.
We hiked past the burned-over hillside and across to the unburned side where we hoped to find a horse gentian we’d seen last fall. Could we find the plant again, we wondered. Would it be blooming?
Minnesota has two kinds of horse gentian, early and late, that are actually members of the honeysuckle family. Both kinds grow two to four feet tall in similar habitats, both have pairs of opposite leaves, and both bloom in May and June with clusters of purplish brown flowers in the axils where leaf and stem meet. Early horse gentian’s flowers ripen into red fruit while late horse gentian’s fruit is yellow, but without fruit the best way we know to tell them apart is the leaves. Early horse gentian’s leaves connect to the stem but not to each other, while late horse gentian’s leaves join together to encircle the stem as though the stem is growing right through them.
We found the plant we’d seen last fall easily, and a look at the leaves told us it was late horse gentian. And yes, there were flowers, tiny bits of color tucked into the leaf axils, just opening their dark velvety petals.
By the time we arrived at Kellogg Weaver Dunes SNA the sun burnt down, heat radiated up, and the ground crunched underfoot. How, we wondered, could anything grow in such dryness?
But grow it did. Bird’s foot violet bloomed, bunches of blue-eyed grass blossomed like little bouquets, more puccoon (hairy this time) shined yellow, and starry false Solomon’s seal’s feathery white flowers perched at the top of gracefully opening leaves.
We had come to search for bearberry, a ground-hugging shrub with small pinkish flowers. We’d first seen bearberry up north in Badoura Jack Pine Woodland SNA last summer and were doubtful we’d find it in southern Minnesota dunes, but we set off faithfully following coordinates we’d found of a sighting. The farther we trekked up and down across sandy blowouts, though, the more we thought, “No way these coordinates are right.”
And yet they were.
On the far side on a sandy blowout, nestled in among springtime-red poison ivy leaves, a population of bearberry hugged the ground, not yet blooming but definitely in bud. The bearberry wasn’t the only surprise: we also came across two blowouts full of beach heather with a few tiny yellow flowers scattered among the small leaves. Near the road where we’d parked we found a plethora of Carolina anemone leaves and one white flower blooming.
What had looked at first like an almost barren landscape turned out to have an abundance of native wildflowers, some blooming, some already done blooming, and many more in bud with a promise of flowers to come. A place to delight sunburned wildflower chasers.
In the wildlife management area across the road sandhill cranes called.
The cool, overcast morning promised rain, but spring was in full swing at last, so we packed our boots and rain gear and drove down to southern Minnesota to see what was blooming. We’d already seen many of this year’s spring flowers and ephemerals, but we knew, too, that some rare and lovely flowers grew along wooded ravines and creek sides in the driftless area of the state where the last glaciers never reached.
First stop, Olmstead county along the Root River. A stream of brightly blooming marsh marigolds led us through a forest rich in flowers to where groundwater percolates down through the bluffs and flows out into a seepage. We’d been here on a previous, naturalist-led trip and been enchanted by the green, moist woods and the plants that populated this tiny wetland. Now the tiny false mermaid plants we’d seen before were tiny no more, and in leaf axils, where leaf and stem meet, minute flowers bloomed.
Leaves of jewelweed, leafcup, and trout lily grew scattered among the rocks along with shiny bunches of sharp-lobed hepatica’s new leaves. Nearby many glorious trilliums grew, and we discussed: drooping or nodding? Nodding, we decided, but elegantly beautiful whichever they were.
Leaves that we’d puzzled over previously on our last visit–Dutchman’s breeches or squirrel corn, two plants so similar we can’t tell them apart until they bloom–now revealed their true identities. Strings of breeches hung in lines on arching stalks while squirrel corn’s heart-shaped flowers bloomed on more upright stalks. Mayapples budded, walking fern walked itself down the side of a mossy boulder, and the pleated striped leaves of puttyroot orchid made us promise a return trip to see them in bloom.
Frogs chirred, birds sang, woodpeckers hammered, and the woods felt alive with spring.
But we weren’t done yet. Not too far away in Winona County more wooded ravines held their own promises. A creekside path led us past the leaves of done-blooming bloodroot, cut-leaf toothwort, and trout lilies, while spring beauty, wood phlox, false rue anemone, wood anemone, jack in the pulpit, and bellwort still boomed. Up on a hillside we found several healthy populations of twinleaf, flowers gone but still easy to recognize by the distinctive leaves. Also on the hillside –surprise!– our first orchid of the season, showy orchis, budding hopefully.
The forecast rain arrived, but only a gentle sprinkle. Light through the new-leafed trees along the sides of the ravine shone green, and our hearts, too, were green with springtime. And with hope.
When we drove up north last Friday, patches of snow and ice still lurked in the twin cities. By the time we returned on Tuesday, almost every bit of snow had disappeared, and the temperature topped 80 degrees. Could any early wildflowers (besides skunk cabbage, which melted its way out of the ground weeks ago) already be blooming?
Since most of our earliest flowers bloom in bare woods to soak up sun before the trees leaf out, we decided to drive on down 35W to Townsend Woods Scientific and Natural Area (SNA), a remnant of old growth maple hardwood forest near Morristown.
Getting into Townsend Woods involves a longish walk alongside a farm field, but once we entered among the trees and crunched through last year’s leaf litter, we began looking for mottled purple-red hepatica leaves. Hepatica hangs on to last year’s leaves until this year’s flowers bloom, then grows new green leaves which stay on the plant until the following spring.
Almost immediately we spotted a sharp-leaved hepatica in bud. Then a hepatica in flower, pale white against the brown forest floor. And then a purple-flowered bloom. And another. And another. And a cluster of blooms. Hepatica did not let us down.
Other signs of imminent spring: a few single trout lily leaves, Virginia waterleaf (an important flower for early native bees) beginning to leaf out, tiny leaves of violets and cut-leaf toothwort. Soon the woods will be alive with these early, quickly blooming flowers and more.
Birds called, frogs rattle-chirred, a fox slipped through the trees, a mourning cloak butterfly flittered. A red-tailed hawk feather lay on the ground, and what we thought was a last scattering of snow turned out to be tufts of fur, all that was left of some creature’s meal.
From a distance Townsend Woods SNA looks like bare tree trunks, but within the woods a whole world is awakening. And we are so glad to see it.
Driving back home, we detoured briefly to check on a new-to-us population of snow trillium, a state special concern flower, that we’d seen last year in the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge. What were the chances, we wondered, of seeing two early flowers so soon after snowmelt and on the same day?
Chances, it turns out, were good. Along a hillside we found a few bright green clusters of snow trillium leaves, a few with petals opening, and one with its bright white flower already open to the sun.