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.
Plains Prickly Pear Cactus
Showy Tick Trefoil