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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.

Check out the book!

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Chasing Spring

May 21, 2022

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

Spring moves quickly, so we do, too. This past Saturday we headed south again, this time to see if the showy orchis leaves and buds of Minnesota’s earliest orchid were blooming yet. 

On the way down to see the orchids we passed close to Magelsson Bluff Park in Rushford where last summer a friend had pointed out a population of robin’s plantain leaves. Several years ago we’d seen what we thought was robin’s plantain blooming on a hillside near Wisconsin, but the hill was too steep for a photo. When we returned later to try to find the flower again, we couldn’t even figure out which steep hillside we might have seen it on.  Now as we neared Rushford we talked about coming back in June when we thought the robin’s plantain would be blooming.  Luckily, we checked the Minnesota Wildflowers website and discovered that robin’s plantain blooms in May and June. Given how fast spring is moving, we quickly rerouted ourselves to the park and found a cheery bunch of robin’s plantain flowers with yellow centers and a fringe of white petals.  

And those showy orchis?  When we reached the place where we’d seen the leaves and buds, we were barely out of the car before we spotted the first blooms, then more and more of the graceful lilac-and-white flowers up the hillside. Celebration ensued.

Minnesota is home to two kinds of shooting star, jeweled shooting star and prairie shooting star.  While prairie shooting star is more common in the United States overall, it’s the less common one in Minnesota where a small roadside remnant contains the state’s only known wild population. Five miles over the border into Iowa, though, lies Hayden Prairie State Preserve, one of Iowa’s richest remaining prairies, where prairie shooting star thrives. So over the border we went. Part of the prairie had been burned since our last visit, and with brush and bushes burned away we could see hundred, possibly thousands, of prairie shooting stars in bloom, a glorious snowfall of flowers.

We saw plenty of the usual springtime flower suspects on our wanderings as well, including swamp saxifrage, Wood betony, edible valerian with leaves that looked rimmed with light, and plains wild indigo about to bloom.  Spring flowers bloom briefly but exuberantly, and we try to see as many and as much as we can.  

Sunday morning we took part in a video interview about searching for wildflowers, and the interviewer asked, why wildflowers?

It’s a good question. 

We have lots of answers, but the shortest and truest one?

We love them.


Springtime Tour

May 14-15, 2022

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

We’re always delighted to see a new-to-us flower (or its leaves or seeds if we can recognize them), and many of our recent searches have been focused on finding particular native plants.  This past weekend was more of a survey tour, visiting flowers in some of our favorite springtime sites and checking out two Scientific and Natural Areas (SNAs). 

Saturday began with a brief (although not so brief as we thought it would be) stop at a rustic road in Wisconsin to check on twinleaf, a flower listed as growing in Minnesota but one we have yet to see here in the wild. A week ago when we drove down the road where twinleaf grows, a few plants had barely emerged, stems and still-folded leaves a soft purple red. Now, just a few days later, this fast-blooming plant had a cluster of unfolded leaves and several seed pods where the flowers had already come and gone.  Next year we are considering camping nearby and checking on the plants hourly in hope of actually seeing it flower. 

Even though we had missed the flowering, we lingered just to soak in the hillsides of blooming trillium, tall bishop’s cap, squirrel corn, hispid buttercup,and the sound of water burbling from a hillside spring where little minnows swam.

Our next planned stop was Wykoff Balsam Fir SNA, a site with several plants that are usually found much farther north but survive in this more southerly SNA where cold air seeps from the rocks even in summer. We couldn’t resist a stop along the way at Carley State Park, where blooming Virginia bluebells flowed across the land.  That same blue caught our eye as we drove on, and we stopped to marvel at an unnamed woods that could have been an SNA, so filled was it with Virginia bluebells, trillium, large-flowered bellwort, bishop’s cap, wood anemone, and Jack-in-the-pulpit.  Virginia bluebells, we deduced, like to grow along rivers, and as we drove, we passed other streams rimmed with blue in the midst of budding green

The part of Wykoff Balsam Fir SNA where we would most likely see rare plants was posted as a sanctuary, only enterable with a scientific research permit from the Department of Natural Resources. We are not scientists, so we were content to see what we thought was the sanctuary area from afar, rising in sheer cliffs crowned with pine trees. While we didn’t see the rare plants, we did see plenty of springtime flowers—spring beauty, Jack-in-the-pulpit, wood phlox, rue anemone and wood anemone, wood betony, rose twisted-stalk, large-flowered bellwort, and smooth Solomon’s seal. We also found a new-to-us population of rattlesnake plantain, thanks to the plant’s distinctive seed pods that make it possible to spot when its also-distinctive leaves are covered by tree litter on the forest floor.

It had already been a day full of flowers, but our way home took us close to Zumbro Falls Woods SNA where a short hike led us to an abundance of jeweled shooting star, gloriously blooming.

Explosions of trillium, of Virginia bluebell, of jeweled shooting star, and a hit parade of some of our favorite springtime blossoms–a flower-filled day in a long-awaited spring.

Sunday we opted for chasing flowers closer to home, heading up to Crystal Springs, a new (and new to us) SNA near Scandia.  Here the hills fell so steeply toward a ravine we could only peer over the edges in most places. A spur trail led partway down the slope with boulders on the uphill side of the trail leaning into us as if to push us over the edge. From the trail, which ended in a cliff, we could look down on declining trillium blooming.  A hiker had told us about the flowers, calling them declining trillium, and although we’ve always called them drooping trillium, we decided we like the name declining even better. Kelly had hoped to get closer for a photo but we declined to try, both for the sake of the fragile environment and for the sake of our fragile selves. We also saw rose twisted-stalk, lyre-leaved rock cress, rue anemone, Jack-in-the-pulpit, and sessile-leaf bellwort, and we and figured out the differences in the Solomon’s seals. Here, too, we found several new-to-us populations of rattlesnake plantain, always a delight.  

This year’s late spring seems determined to make up for lost time, and we don’t want to miss a minute of it.

Spring! Spring! Spring!

May 7, 2022

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

Native wildflowers have been making up for lost time these last few warm and sunny days. Deciding we needed to catch up, too, we planned a one-day trip to check out five different sites and see what was blooming in this sudden spring.  

First stop was a quick check on Magelssen Bluff Park in Rushford, Minnesota, where jeweled shooting star will soon be blooming out of the rocky hillside.  Wood betony has appeared in swirls of red, and the leaves of robin’s plantain have also cropped up, a flower we’ve seen only once, and we plan to be back later to see it blooming.

Our main goal, though, was to visit a 1600 acre Wildlife Management Area (WMA), in Fillmore County.  For years we’d been in search of squirrel corn, scouring places it was said to occur in Minnesota without any luck, finally finding it across the border on a Wisconsin rustic road.  Still, because squirrel corn is listed as a Minnesota flower of special concern, and because we are mainly Minnesota flowerchasers, we hankered to see it here. 

 A knowledgeable friend told us of a population along the base of a north-facing bluff beside the Root River, so we found a likely place to park by the river and set off.  After tromping through a floodplain field of old grasses toward the nearby bluff, we discovered that the river ran right along the base of the bluff, making it impossible to hike there.  The only direction to go was up, so we scrambled through briar bushes and plants we were pretty sure weren’t native, higher and higher up the hill.  Gradually as we climbed, a few native flowers appeared.

Things didn’t look promising, though, until we crossed a small ravine near the top of the bluff and came into a different world. Trees grew farther apart with little undergrowth, and we wandered blissfully among Dutchman’s breeches, Canadian wild ginger, bloodroot, sharp-lobed hepatica, spring beauty, trout lilies, and cutleaf toothwort—a plethora of wildflowers. Because squirrel corn and Dutchman’s breeches have almost the same leaves, bloom at almost the same time, and grow in the same habitat, we scrutinized the area around every Dutchman’s breeches plant that we saw. Finally, under a fallen log, and at the same instant, we both saw…

…squirrel corn!

The plant was budding, the buds already distinct from Dutchman’s breeches bloomer-shaped blossoms.  If we had found one squirrel corn, we reasoned, there must be more. And there were, scattered nearby and down the hillside.  We followed a trail to the bottom of the bluff where the river swerved away for a stretch, and there we finally found squirrel corn growing at the base of a north-facing bluff as promised.  The river, however, soon curved back to intersect the bluff, and our only choices for returning to the car were to swim or to reclimb the hill.  We chose the hill, no longer minding the briars that snatched at us, delighted that squirrel corn did, indeed, still grow in Minnesota, and that we had seen it.

Our next stop was along a state forest road where, a couple of weeks back, we’d seen emerging leaves that we thought might be showy orchis.  We’d seen only a few of those leaves, but this time as we walked along the road, we saw what must be hundreds of them, still not blooming. When they do bloom in a week or two, they will be spectacular.

Along the same road large-flowered bellwort was coming into bloom, an abundance of yellow everywhere we looked.  Hepatica and bloodroot both still flowered, and we not only saw the rattlesnake plantain leaves we’d seen on our last visit but also a few more new-to-us populations of the plant’s striking leaves.

Could the day get any better?

Another meant-to-be-brief stop along the edge of Kellogg Weaver Dunes, where we had read that Carolina anemone might be blooming, turned out to be a fine place to practice Jim Walewski’s advice for naturalists, heard in a recent zoom presentation:  go slowly, look closely, take notes, and share information.  Because full-blown spring comes later to the prairie than the forest, most plants were still quite small, and we did indeed go slowly and look closely at them. We didn’t find Carolina anemone, but we did see Carolina whitlow grass, lyre-leaved rock cress, a few bird’s foot violets, some prickly pear cactus, several pasqueflowers past their prime, one prairie smoke ready to burst into bloom, and many leaves of plants we have yet to learn. 

Anytime we are in the vicinity of the Wisconsin rustic road where we first saw squirrel corn and the only place we’ve seen twinleaf in the wild, we can’t resist a stop.  The road didn’t disappoint.  Twinleaf was up but not yet blooming with leaves still folded together, squirrel corn was just budding with a few plants already in flower, and spring beauty, eastern false rue anemone, large-flowered bellwort, Dutchman’s breeches, yellow trout lily, hepatica, bloodroot, cutleaf toothwort, mayapple, white trout lily, and Canadian wild ginger were all in bloom or about to be—a roll call of almost all our spring wildflowers along a single stretch of road. 

A little sun-burned and wind-burned, hearts full of flowers, we headed home on a day bursting with springtime.

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