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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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Orchids, Orchids, Orchids

June 13, 2021

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

We love Minnesota’s Scientific and Natural Areas (SNAs), but we’re not the only state to set aside wilder places.  Wisconsin also has SNAs (Wisconsin calls them State Natural Areas), a whopping 687 of them.  Many of these SNAs, like Minnesota’s, provide “some of the last refuges for rare plants and animals,” according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

On Sunday we were lucky enough to wade and wander in one of these Wisconsin SNAs searching for some of those rare flowers in a forested swamp surrounding a small bog lake.  And we were even luckier to go with a fellow wildflower lover who knows his way around this swamp.  

Last week when we saw eight orchids in one day we thought we had achieved an all-time personal best.  But records are made to be broken, and around the boggy lake and under cedar, tamarack, and spruce trees we saw a total of thirteen orchid species.  Not all were blooming but many were, and even seeing the ones not yet in bloom  or on their way to seed is always a thrill.

The day was warm and bright with enough cool breezes to keep the sweat down.  No bugs harassed us, although we saw many butterflies and dragonflies.  The usual bog suspects were blooming:  three-leaved false Solomon’s seal, Labrador tea, cotton grass (at least two kinds), bog rosemary, bog laurel, small cranberry, purple pitcher plant. We looked, photographed, recorded, and admired them. 

It wasn’t long before we saw our first stemless lady’s-slipper, then the yellow-green stems and flowers of early coral root under the trees. Along the edge of the lake we found delicate rose pogonia, vivid dragon’s mouth, and bright grass pink blooming.  The spires of white bog orchid became the first new-to-us orchid of the day. Looking closely at the flowers on a white bog orchid, I thought I saw one of the flowers move. It turned out to be a small white crab spider which, our friend told us, hung out in the orchid waiting to catch an unwary pollinator for a meal. More white bog orchids, rose pogonia, grass pink, and dragon’s mouth grew scattered all along the edge of the lake.

Small streams meandered through the moss, and we waded across them and into the forested part of the swamp. Here we found yellow lady’s slipper, showy lady’s-slipper,  club spur orchid not yet blooming, blunt-leaved orchid  in bud, heart-leaved twayblade past its prime, small round-leaved orchid, and  northern green bog orchid just opening its buds.  

We are trying hard to use scientific names for at least some of the orchids when we can, since folks who use scientific nomenclature tend to look oddly at us when we say, “You know, the little polka-dotted orchid.”  We were especially glad to get tips on how to tell apart northern green-bog orchid (Platanthera aquilonis) and its very close relation tall green bog-orchid (Platanthera huronensis), since even the guidebooks confess that these two species are easy to confuse. 

The white bog orchid, club-spur, blunt-leaved, and northern green bog-orchid are all new to us, and we hope to see them back in Minnesota to add to our list of Minnesota orchids we’ve seen (we are approaching 40 out of 49).

It’s hard to imagine a day richer in orchids (although that’s what we said last week), and we drove home filled up with bog trotting, orchid spotting, and gratitude to the friend who shared this richness of orchids and this quietly amazing place. 

An Eight-Orchid Day

June 5, 2021

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

Some orchids have a vivid presence such as showy lady’s-slipper or stemless lady’s-slipper.  Some are small and demure, like early coralroot.  And some are persnickety about showing their colors above ground, such as striped coralroot which may bloom above ground one year and then not reappear in the same location for several succeeding years.  We’ve been on a quest to see all of the 49 orchids in Welby Smith’s book Native Orchids of Minnesota, and last Saturday we added two more to our list bringing our total of orchids seen to 36.  

A week earlier we’d seen a tightly budded flower stalk that had been identified as a Hooker’s orchid, and now we hoped to see a Hooker’s orchid with open flowers. On a day when the temperature was rising toward 100 degrees in the Twin Cities and none too cool where we were headed, we drove back up north, hoping to find a blooming Hooker’s orchid at Pennington Bog Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) or at a site nearby.   Our other goal: to find striped coralroot, an orchid I’d seen years ago but that Kelly had yet to see and photograph.  

Pennington Bog SNA, composed mostly of northern cedar swamp, lists at least 14 different kinds of orchid growing there, including calypso, dragon’s mouth, striped coralroot, early coralroot, heart-leaved twayblade, and several kinds of lady’s-slipper. A permit to visit is needed to help protect this fragile habitat, and we made sure to get our permit from the Department of Natural Resources before heading north. 

Another helpful wildflower searcher had told us about an area not too far from Pennington Bog where ram’s head lady’s-slipper and Hooker’s orchid grow, so we stopped there first. Tiger swallowtails flitted under the trees as we searched and found early coralroot and small yellow lady’s-slipper along with several ram’s head lady’s-slipper orchids, most of them past their blooming prime but a few still looking fresh.

Under a stand of cedars close by the ram’s head lady’s-slipper we spied an unfamiliar orchid with two wide basal leaves, its lovely white spurred flowers opening along the stalk. Yet another new to us orchid! Kelly took photographs, and we checked our pocket orchid guide,  narrowing the choices to two: blunt-leaved orchid or Hooker’s orchid.  Then we realized we’d had the same discussion last week about the orchid we’d seen in bud at the Lost Forty SNA. Of the two choices, only Hooker’s orchid blossomed in June which meant we must be now be looking (again) at a Hooker’s orchid, this time in bloom instead of in bud. Celebration ensued. 

We journeyed on to Pennington Bog SNA and had barely entered into the shaded light under the cedar trees when we spied striped coralroot. In my memory the striped coralroot I’d seen before had glowed deep pinkish red, and my memory turned out to be true.  Singly and in bunches, the orchids stood out like stalks of peppermint candy, each one fresher and more beautiful than the last.  

We wandered farther into the SNA, treading carefully on the mossy ground, coming across early coralroot, small yellow lady’s-slipper, a scattering of heart-leaved twayblade, and small round-leaved orchid just coming into polka-dotted bloom.  The most unexpected find of the day:  calypso orchid still blooming. We thought we’d come too late to see these tiny, exquisite orchids, and yet here they were, bright spots of color against the moss. Several calypso had gone to seed (or close to it), but a few were fresh and sweet. When we added up the day’s tally of orchids, we had seen eight orchids in all—a personal best.  

The day’s weather had been unusually hot, sweat dripping off of us as we searched.  We ended the day with a welcome swim in Blue Lake followed by an evening paddle to the wetland end of the lake tucked behind a sand bar. Round-leaved sundew grew in patches of moss, beavers worked busily near their lodge, and bladderwort, one of Minnesota’s carnivorous plants, bloomed its small yellow flowers. Maybe someday this wetland tucked behind a sandbar will slowly fill in as lakes do, becoming more of a bog.

Who knows? Maybe some day another wildflower chaser or two will come here in search of orchids that will have found a home in the moss. If so, we wish them well.

We wish them an eight-orchid day.

Thanks, Tony, for your help with a few of these spectacular finds!

In Search of Orchids

May 28 and 29, 2021
Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

Some trips are full of surprises.  Some are focused on specific goals.  But even the goal-directed trips can surprise us.

Memorial Day weekend has become a time when we head north searching for wildflowers.  Last year in the time of covid we didn’t go, so this year we were doubly eager to see what might be blooming.  We know that we can’t make a date with wildflowers, and this year’s timing has seemed early for some flowers, late for others.  But we drove north in hope of seeing some of the flowers on our wish list and visiting places we love.

Our first stop, an hour from the cities, was to look for putty-root orchid blooming.  Last fall, thanks to directions from a helpful friend, we’d seen putty-root’s distinctive crinkled leaves, blue-green against the fallen deciduous leaves of a forest. Putty-root die off in the winter, but knowing where we’d seen them gave us hope that we could find the flowers blooming.

A deciduous woods in late spring is not the same woods as it was in late fall.  Where sunlight fell through bare branches in November, now the leafed-in trees let in much less light, and we understood why ephemerals hurry to gather sunshine while they can. We followed the path to where we remembered seeing the orchid’s leaves, peering at the forest floor as we went for what we imagined was a diminutive orchid. Nodding trilliums bloomed, bloodroot leaves stood up, but although we’d seen quite a few putty-root leaves in the fall, we couldn’t seem to find any flowers. 

Then there they were, right in front of us, two putty-root orchids at least eighteen inches tall, their yellowish flowers tipped with purple. In the dark woods they stood up in all their slender glory, and we were grateful to be able to see them blooming.

Next stop: Itasca State Park, where we had read about a location for spotted coralroot. As we drove through the park we stopped again and again along the roadside to look at small yellow lady’s-slipper, large yellow lady’s-slipper, and large-flowered trillium. When we finally came to the trail where we hoped to find the spotted coralroot we hiked past Canada mayflower, wood anemone, and more blooming starflowers than we’d ever seen before.  The only spotted coralroot we could find was a previous year’s flower gone to seed. According to one source coralroot lives most of its life underground and flowers only when conditions are optimal.  Either we had come too early, or this was a non-optimal year, but now we knew where to look on future visits.

From Itasca State Park it’s only a few minute’s drive to Iron Springs Scientific and Natural Area (SNA), one of our all-time favorite places. Here we had GPS coordinates for striped coralroot, the show-stopper of coralroot orchids, and we hoped to catch it blooming. Here, too, though, the coralroot must have stayed underground waiting for optimal conditions to bloom in peppermint-striped splendor.   What we did see blooming:  abundant naked miterwort, marsh marigold, heart-leaved twayblade, three-leaf false Solomon’s seal, large-flowered bellwort, three-leaf goldthread, buckbean, starry false Solomon’s seal, wild sarsaparilla, Labrador tea, and early coralroot.  Many stemless lady’s-slippers from creamy pale buds to deep pink blossoms nodded gracefully, the air smelled fresh and piney, the ground along the trail squished under our feet, and a sweet breeze kept any bugs at bay.  

The next morning dawned with a sky striped coral against pale blue. Lake Bemidji State Boardwalk is another one of our favorite places. From the boardwalk you can see a hundred different plants, and signs along the way help to identify which ones are which.  The walk to reach the boardwalk was green with new leaves on the trees, and the lacy balls of wild sarsaparilla bloomed along with starflower and a few bright gaywings, which used to fool us into thinking they might be orchids.    

Eight different kinds of orchid bloom along the boardwalk at various times, and this morning we were lucky to see several stemless lady’s-slipper just coming into bloom and a single bright magenta dragon’s mouth blooming back behind a tree.  Purple pitcher plants with new tiny pitchers growing up between the older ones made rosettes on the mossy surface of the bog.  Several purple pitcher plants raised long flower stalks with ball-shaped buds at the tops that will open into bright pinwheel-shaped flowers.  

The air was cool, 45 degrees according to a thermometer at the end of the boardwalk that registered both air temperature and also water temperature down below the surface of the bog.  This morning the difference between air and bog water was a mere twelve degrees, but on hotter days the difference can be much greater.  In the cold acidic watery world of bogs the plants we were seeing, from bog rosemary to Labrador tea to tamarack trees, are hardy, tough survivors.  

The old-growth trees at the Lost Forty SNA, our next stop, are survivors, too.  Incorrectly surveyed as a lake in the cadastral survey that marked out our country into townships and sections, the area was overlooked by timber companies who had no interest in what appeared on maps to be water.  Ignored and overlooked, these trees kept growing until a re-survey in 1960 corrected the error.  Now the forest is protected, and a walk among the tall, tall pines is like a walk back in time.

Winds swayed the treetops high overhead as we searched for striped coral-root, but here, too, it appeared that coralroot might be taking a pass on appearing above ground this year. We did see early coralroot, starflower, bluebead lily, bunchberry, gaywings, and rose twisted-stalk, along with a new-to-us orchid already in bud with two large round basal leaves.  A consult with orchid books narrowed possibilities to two: either a hooker’s orchid or a large round-leaved orchid.  Since the books informed us that the large round-leaved orchid bloomed in July and August while the hooker’s orchid bloomed in June and July, we tentatively named it as a hooker’s orchid.  We’ll come back in a few weeks to see it blooming, but either way we’ve added a new orchid to our list of orchids we’ve seen.

The trip began with orchids and ended with orchids.  In between, we saw flowers we’d hoped to see and flowers that surprised us, either by blooming or by not yet blooming. One of the joys of wildflower chasing—we never know for sure what we’ll see.  But we know that, whatever we find (or don’t find), wildflower chasing fills up our hearts.