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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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Searching for Bog Adder’s Mouth

August 7, 2022

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

We’ve been chasing bog adder’s mouth orchid for a while now.  It’s small (only a few inches tall), inconspicuous, and, according to the Minnesota Wildflowers web site, “one of the rarest orchids in North America, if not the rarest.” (Minnesota lists it as State Endangered.)  We’ve made multiple trips to a state-protected site in Clearwater County and seen at least 13 different orchids there over the years, but bog adder’s mouth was never one of them.   

Year after year we wrote bog adder’s mouth on our “wish list.”  Even when a fellow orchid lover pointed us toward where he had once seen bog adder’s mouth and we searched every inch of the site, the orchid still eluded us. 

Then another wildflower friend pointed us in a different direction, so once again we drove north as rain spattered sporadically from an overcast sky. When a partial rainbow arced across the clouds we took it as a sign–today might be the day!  

After all, how hard could it be in a few hundred wooded, often wet, acres to find Minnesota’s smallest orchid, about the size of a blade of grass, pale green against the green moss where it grows, possibly with tiny flowers or seeds on its stem and a few small leaves near its base?  We pulled on our boots and headed into the woods, hopes high.

Was this bog adder’s mouth?
No, just pyrola gone to seed.

Was this bog adder’s mouth?
No, that’s naked miterwort.

What about this?
Nope, that’s green adder’s mouth that’s lost its mop top.

Hours passed. We scoured every mossy hummock where bog adder’s mouth might grow and found countless pyrola, naked miterwort, and green adder’s mouth.  

And then, just as we were about to concede defeat for this year– there it was.

Or was it?  

We’d been looking for a three-inch tall orchid, but the one nestled in the mossy hummock beneath a black spruce was at least twice that tall. Could this be white adder’s mouth, a similar-looking orchid, instead?  Close examination ensued.

White adder’s mouth has a single leaf, while bog adder’s mouth usually has several leaves plus a bulb-like swelling at the base of the leaves. The orchid in front of us had several leaves and the telltale swelling bulb.  

Next to the orchid a second orchid grew, this one only about three inches tall, with the same flowers, multiple leaves, and a bulb at the base. We had read that bog adder’s mouth sometimes reproduces by forming structures on leaf tips that drop and develop into new orchids.  We might even be looking at two generations of bog adder’s mouth. 

In the hush of the bog we felt a kind of reverence and gratitude that at last bog adder’s mouth had shown itself to us. 

Back in the cities now, we smile to know that somewhere north under black spruce and cedars, among mossy hummocks and wet pools, two bog adder’s mouth orchids grow.  We’ve seen them. At last.

Northern Magic

July 22 and 23, 2022

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

The north shore of Lake Superior holds its own magic:  rugged rocks, wild waves, endless sky.  We love the grand sweep of lake and shore, but our first trip to the north shore this year was in search of smaller things, plants that have survived among the rocks and waves as well as other native plants we had yet to see. On our wish list: alpine bistort, encrusted saxifrage, small false asphodel, and auricled twayblade. Early on a Friday morning (but not too early for coffee) we met a wildflower friend in Grand Marais who had promised to guide us to out-of-the-way places. Did I mention we were excited?

First stop:  Icelandite Coastal Fen Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) north of Grand Marais.  A fen is essentially a peatland with a source of fresh water besides rainfall, such as runoff from higher ground or an upwelling spring. (In a bog, which is also a peatland, the only source of incoming water is rain or snowmelt.) In Icelandite Coastal Fen a rare orchid, auricled twayblade, grows. 

And we saw it! Saw them, actually, twenty or more plants, tucked under alders. Many were blooming, their pale petals seeming to glow, while some plants had just the two leaves that give twayblades their name. 

Beyond the alders in the open fen we found bog rosemary, small cranberry, hundreds of blooming pitcher plants,  and our second orchid of the day, Platanthera huronensis. (We aren’t botanists, but we finally memorized the scientific names for Platanthera huronensis and the similar-looking Platanthera aquilonis, since overlapping common names for them left us confused.)   

A short drive and hike along a river revealed our next orchid, a lesser purple fringed orchid just beginning to bloom.  Orchid count: 3.

Alongside the path into Horseshoe Bay Wildlife Management Area (WMA) large white flowers of thimbleberry and small, sweet flowers of northern bluebells were blooming.  By the rocky shore we found northern paintbrush, one of the flowers on our wish list for the weekend, as well as the sticky yellow leaves of common butterwort (which is actually uncommon in Minnesota). 

Next destination: Fall River Patterned Fen, northeastern Minnesota’s only patterned fen, made up of ridges (strings) and pools (flarks).  A one-mile hike down the Superior hiking trail took us to a likely entry into the fen through a lowland black spruce forest, and we stepped out into a world of immense silence. The moss in bogs and fens can absorb up to twenty times its weight in water, and it’s easy to believe it might absorb sounds as well.  

The ground squished at times, quivering underfoot and springing back up, making us grateful for the rubber boots we wore.  Bright, delicate blossoms of rose pogonia stood out, far too many to count, and countless purple pitcher plants raised their pinwheel blossoms. In the lower, wetter places we found both round-leaved and spoon-leaf sundew blooming.

But the prize of the day was club-spur orchid, which we’d only ever seen in Wisconsin.  Though nowhere near as numerous as the rose pogonia, plenty of club-spur orchids were blooming, enough to make our hearts glad. An unexpected find:  one tall ragged fringed orchid only slightly past its prime.  Orchid count: 6.

Storm clouds roiled above us, so we reluctantly began the trek back out of the fen, promising ourselves we’d return to this silent, mysterious habitat. Rain caught up with us under the black spruces, turning the air misty, white, and even more dreamlike.

Even after the thrill of the patterned fen, we still had two more stops. At an abandoned gravel pit we found more ragged fringed orchids, along with western spotted coralroot orchid and green pyrola, a new-to-us species. A glimpse of a Great Lakes gentian not yet blooming made this another place we’ll return to in a few weeks’ time.

Last stop of the day: Artist’s Point in Grand Marais, where we found alpine bistort in bloom near the leaves of common butterwort and bird’s-eye primrose. We dropped off our friend with many thanks and headed to the home of other friends where we were staying.  After a nine-orchid day and two new fens to fall in love with, we fell into bed, tired but filled with wildflower wonders.

The way home the next morning included a quick stop at Sugarloaf Cove to check on the status of Hudson Bay eyebright, an arctic disjunct that grows there far south of its usual habitat.  We found the tiny, tiny plants, less than an inch tall, growing in cracks of the rocks.  A non-native similar species, Tartary eyebright, is a threat to these native plants, but at Sugarloaf, at least, we saw no sign of it.  We did see another Platanthera huronensis, which made us happy.

Our last stop of the weekend:  Virginia, Minnesota, where on the overburden,  piled-up earth left from open-pit iron mining, a new kind of habitat grows on the reddish earth and rocks.  A scrabbling scramble up a hillside of tumbled rock brought us to the top of the overburden, where last year we saw Case’s ladies’-tresses blooming.  It’s early for Case’s yet this year, only their green leaves showing, but the spiraling white blossoms of northern slender ladies’-tresses stood out in the rainy light, their stems so slight that the best way to spot them was from a ground’s eye view .

Still on our hope-to-see list for another trip north:  encrusted saxifrage, small false asphodel, hooded ladies’ tresses, Great Lakes gentian–other flowers for other searches.  For now we’re grateful for a nine-orchid weekend with two new-to-us fens, for friends who share their wildflower knowledge, and for friends who open their home to us when we are wildflower chasing.  And we are grateful most of all for the folks who know and protect these wild places full of strange and wondrous flowers.

Rare Days

July 1,2 and 3, 2022

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

Usually over a long summer weekend we head north to look for wildflowers.  This year, however, we both needed to stay closer to home, so we planned a day trip to look for a flower we’ve been chasing for years:  the state-threatened prairie milkweed. We’d seen it blooming last year down in Iowa at Hayden Prairie, and although it’s listed as still growing at a single site in Minnesota (unlike purple milkweed, which is also listed in Minnesota but hasn’t been seen here for at least 125 years), we hadn’t been able to track prairie milkweed down.

We read that it grows in Mower County, so we headed south from the Twin Cities, stopping along the way to check on a place where, thanks to a friend, we’d previously seen sweet-smelling Indian plantain, which is listed as state endangered. We found the plantain not yet blooming but still growing strong, and at another stop, thanks to the same friend, we found wild sweet William (state special concern) just past full and lovely bloom. 

Our journey took us along one of our favorite rich-ditch roads where we’ve seen many roadside wildflowers. When we spotted the stalks of white wild indigo, a species of special concern in Minnesota, we stopped to explore and found rattlesnake master (state special concern) and wild quinine (state endangered) blooming along with other natives. Occasional bright orange wood lilies and magenta-colored prairie phlox punctuated the roadsides as we headed on to Lake Louise State Park in search of the shade-tolerant poke milkweed, which we found in almost-full bloom along a wooded road.

Arriving at the many-hundred-acres location where prairie milkweed is said to grow, we set out to search and found a prairie full of wild quinine, rattlesnake master, pale-spike lobelia, white wild indigo, and showy tick-trefoil that gave us hope that this time we might actually find prairie milkweed.

And in less than an hour of looking, we did!  First one plant, then several, then several more, until we stopped counting at fifty.  Jubilation ensued, along with a sense of wonder that we’d actually seen prairie milkweed here in Minnesota.

It’s hard to top a day like the one we’d been having, but we made one more stop at a place where we had just heard from a wildflower friend that more goat’s rue (state special concern) than we could imagine was blooming.  Even though the goat’s rue was already almost all bloomed out when we found it, we were glad see so many flowers—far too many to count even for someone who loves to count. Along the roadside butterflyweed and puccoon bloomed brightly, and we began to list which of Minnesota’s 13 milkweed species we’d seen so far that day: poke, prairie, common, and butterflyweed.

What hadn’t we seen yet, we wondered, and where might we still see it?  Suddenly we were on a new quest: to see as many Minnesota milkweeds as we could chase down.

Not far away was the goat prairie that holds Minnesota’s only known population of narrow-leaved milkweed (state endangered), and we couldn’t resist a climb to see if it was blooming yet. It was, and so were several nearby green milkweeds. Six milkweed species and counting—what if we made one more stop at an SNA almost on our way home where we’d once seen woolly milkweed, which is uncommon, and clasping milkweed (state-threatened) to add to our list?  

So of course we headed to the SNA, where we found no sign of woolly milkweed and only the wavy leaves of clasping milkweed long, long past its prime.  Still, we counted the clasping as seen if not blooming, and, although the call of more milkweed-searching was strong, evening was coming on, so we headed home.  After all, we had three more days of the long weekend for our milkweed quest.

The next day we were treated to a tour of Uncas Dunes SNA by its site steward, where we saw creeping juniper (state special concern) just down the road from the SNA, and in the SNA itself a wealth of oak savannah and sedge meadow plants and flowers, including June grass, large- flowered penstemon gone to seed, silky prairie clover, bearberry, small-leaved pussytoes (state special concern), racemed milkwort, tubercled rein orchid (state threatened), and yet another milkweed to add to our list:  oval-leaf milkweed.

Full up with flower chasing, we drove home wondering where we could manage to see the rest of Minnesota’s milkweeds:  showy, swamp, Sullivant’s (state threatened), and whorled.  Our best chance, we agreed, was Schaefer Prairie, where on a past visit we’d once seen all four species blooming at the same time.  

Sunday morning early we pointed the car west toward Schaefer Prairie where, eventually, we came across the three “S” milkweeds we were searching for—Sullivant’s showy, swamp–along with butterflyweed and common milkweed, some in bud, some in bloom.  All that remained to be seen was whorled milkweed, of which we found no sign at Schaefer.

Consulting our lengthy list of flowers seen in past searches, we decided our best chance for whorled milkweed was Lost Valley Prairie SNA, where Hill’s thistle, another flower we’ve wanted to see in bloom, grew.  Lost Valley didn’t disappoint: we found one Hill’s thistle blooming beautifully and two whorled milkweed in full flower.

Final milkweed count for the weekend:  12
Blooming or in bud: common, Sullivant’s, swamp, whorled, prairie, narrow-leaved, green, poke, showy and butterfly weed.
Past bloom: oval-leaf, clasping
Not seen: woolly

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