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.
Snow sifts through the trees, piling on the deep drifts still on the ground, as we make our way down to Minnehaha Creek. We’ve come on our first wildflower search of the year to look for the first wildflower of the year: skunk cabbage. Near the end of a long winter, we are hungry for wildflowers.
Behind us the falls roar. Next to the path the creek flows fast and ice-free on its way to join the Mississippi River. We cross a bridge and cautiously creep along the snow-covered boardwalk to the first opening in the snow. Down in the wet ground two purplish pointed shapes poke up, curling around each other.
A little farther along in open water on the creek side of the boardwalk we find at least a dozen more skunk cabbages emerging. Each will eventually open to reveal a round yellow center covered with small white flowers that, so they say, give off a skunkish sort of smell we have yet to experience.
It will be weeks before the next early spring flowers appear, the snow trilliums and hepaticas. Why is skunk cabbage so early?
Like many other woodland flowers, skunk cabbage needs to bloom and gather its share of sunlight before the trees overhead leaf out and shade the ground. What makes skunk cabbage even earlier than other springtime wildflowers are its deep, extensive roots that provide starch for the plant to generate its own heat–as much as 70 degrees–to melt its way up out of the frozen earth. Snow doesn’t stand a chance.
As we make our way back up the slippery slope of a road snow still falls, icing the bare branches of the trees. But we know that under the snow skunk cabbages, like us, are burning for spring.
On a cold and snowy winter day, when native wildflowers have gone to sleep or to seed, we have gentians on our minds, those late summer bloomers with a color so lovely and deep it has its own name: gentian blue. (There’s also a gentian blue sports car color, but, trust us, the flower came first.)
Not all gentians that go by the common name “gentian” are blue. One gentian flower is creamy yellow, one is green, and two of the flowers with the common name gentian (early and late horse gentian, which we have yet to see blooming) are not only not blue but actually belong to a different botanical family.
The first four gentians we saw when we began chasing wildflowers were definitely blue—bottle, stiff, downy, and greater fringed gentian. They were also relatively easy to find, although we did mistake a greater fringed gentian for a lesser one, since both are small with similar flowers. But lesser fringed gentian, when we finally identified it at Roscoe Scientific and Natural Area (SNA), turned out to be shorter and have slightly smaller leaves and shorter fringe on its petals. (Hint: it also helped that lesser fringed gentian was the only one listed at that SNA.)
Bottle gentian is Minnesota’s most common gentian, the brilliant blue of the closed blossoms in the grasses of late summer like overlooked Easter eggs. I’d read that bumblebees were the only pollinators big enough to fight their way into bottle gentians and that they often left their rear legs and bumblebee bottom sticking out so that they didn’t get trapped inside the tightly closed petals. Once, in Iron Horse Prairie SNA, I actually saw a bumblebee bottom protruding from a bottle gentian. The bumblebee backed out and flew on before we could snap a photo, but I know what I saw, and it made me laugh out loud. You don’t even have to go to the prairie (although we love and highly recommend a prairie for so many reasons) to watch a bumblebee fight its way in and back out of bottle gentian flowers. You can watch one HERE.
Stiff gentian and greater fringed gentian grow at Iron Horse Prairie SNA, too, and we found downy gentian’s graceful blossoms at Oronoco Prairie SNA. It was years more before we tracked down the other blue members of the family: lesser fringed gentian in a ditch, Great Lakes gentian in a bog, and pleated gentian in a saline prairie. We spotted American spurred gentian with its fat green pointy flowers in several forests, saw an abundance of yellow gentian along highway 56 in Mower County, and identified late horse gentian’s bright orange fruits at Oronoco Prairie SNA one September afternoon. (Hint: the plant looks nothing like the other gentians to our untrained eye, and we would have passed it by if we hadn’t spotted the fruits). Now that we’ve seen late horse gentian’s vivid contribution to the fall prairie, we’re determined to revisit late horse gentian in bloom and also track down its near relative, early horse gentian.
As for the native blue gentians (and the one creamy yellow gentian), we are always grateful to see their deep and lovely flowers gracing Minnesota’s wilder places. Who needs a sports car painted gentian blue when we can find true gentian blue for free? See more information about Minnesota’s gentians HERE.
Berries, berries, berries! It’s what some flowers ripen into in order to make more flowers.
We especially noticed berries this past fall atBadoura Jack Pine Woodland Scientific and Natural Area (SNA). Most flowers were already bloomed out, but berries were plentiful—blueberry, bearberry, eastern teaberry (also known as wintergreen), snowberry –all thrive in the sandy soil under the open canopy of jack pines. We’ve also seen both large and small cranberry this past year, the large cranberries in a bog and the small cranberries growing abundantly along a trail in the Superior National Forest.
What exactly is a berry? We got as far as learning that all berries are fruit but not all fruit are berries before getting lost among pomes, stones, and aggregates. So we decided that for the purpose of this blog (and definitely unscientifically), berries are native fruit found in the wild with “berry” in their name.
Here are some of the berries we’ve seen in Minnesota this past year.
Two kinds of blueberry, lowbush and velvet-leaf, grow in Minnesota, both with delicate bell-like flowers that ripen into tasty fruit. Blueberries are widespread in northern forests and especially abundant following a fire. A word of warning: it’s best not to fill your hat with blueberries, then, as you hurry not to be left behind by fellow canoeists, clap your hat onto your head, resulting in a net loss of delicious fruit. Trust me. I know.
Minnesota also has three kinds of edible cranberry, and we’ve seen the two low-growing ones in bogs and swamps. Both large cranberry and small cranberry ripen richly red and tartly tasty. Large cranberries, especially, gleam like fat red jewels on a rainy boggish day.
Snowberry comes by its name honestly–small white flowers ripen into small white berries.
Bearberry flowers look like small, delicately pink bells. They grow in dry, sandy, or rocky places over much of the northern half of the state and ripen into red berries. Bears are said to like them, but we can’t testify to this: the only bear we’ve seen lately was in a hurry to cross a road in Wisconsin and not stopping to eat anything. Why was the bear crossing the road? You know the answer.
The app on our phones identified a plant as eastern teaberry, but we’ve always known it as wintergreen when we’ve seen it in the north woods. Its flowers, like other members of the heath family, are bell shaped, and the red fruit when it ripens stands out against the plant’s shiny green leaves.
Bunchberry’s white blossoms, which are actually bracts (modified leaves) with tiny flowers in the center, ripen into bunches of red berries in the forests where it grows throughout much of the state. It’s not a member of the heath family like cranberry, blueberry, eastern teaberry, snowberry, and bearberry, but it is the world’s fastest plant. When a pollinator or wind disturbs its flowers the pollen shoots out in half a millisecond. Luckily for wildlife, the berries hold still.
Winter is here now, and the berries that haven’t been eaten will soon be buried berries, deep under snow. In the dark days before solstice, while we wait for the light to grow longer and next year’s wildflower season to grow nearer, we send you all a wish for joy, peace, an abundance of wildflowers…