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.
We’ve had an interesting time figuring our flower chasing this year. Spring came late, then all in a rush, then stalled out, then seemed to creep. This year we also decided to focus on seeing specific flowers in specific places at specific times, which means synchronizing both our busy schedules (work, teaching, library visits, a botany class on Isle Royale, a daughter’s upcoming wedding, visits with grandchildren) with the flowers themselves. Still, we’ve managed to check at least one flower –squirrel corn blooming in Minnesota–off of our must-see list. Two of the flowers still on the list: blanketflower and ball cactus in bloom.
So when we heard that blanketflower was blooming now at Blanket Flower Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) and that ball cactus, which grows in only a tiny part of western Minnesota, was close to blooming, we mapped out a one-day circle tour to check on both of these flowers and a few others as well.
At Blanket Flower Prairie SNA we climbed a hill under a cloudless sky past hoary puccoon, prairie smoke gone to delicate and drifty seed, yellow sundrop, and smooth pussytoe. Near the hilltop, just as we’d been told, we spied our first blooming blanketflower, bright as sunrise on a stalk. Jubilation ensued. More clumps of blanketflower blooming, more jubilation. We wandered happily among glacial erratics identifying green milkweed in bud, prairie rose, wood betony gone to seed, prairie alum root, veiny pea, and slender beardtongue.
Next stop: a nearby SNA that listed small white lady’s-slipper, a flower we thought we’d missed this year. We’d been told, though, that some were still blooming at Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge, so we headed into the SNA with hope high in our hearts. Small white lady’s-slipper is one of Minnesota’s three prairie orchids (along with great plains ladies’ tresses and western prairie fringed orchid), so we weren’t surprised that it might be growing in a western prairie. But we were surprised at how the dried grass of the SNA crunched underfoot, since we usually see the small whites only in wetter prairies. We were even more surprised to look down as we wandered and see two small white lady’s-slippers blooming, then several more nearby that were mostly bloomed out—then more and more and more, so many that we finally gave up counting and simply estimated several hundred plants, most already gone to seed, some of which hadn’t bloomed at all this year. Next year we’ll try to come earlier to see more of them in bloom, but this year we’re just grateful that we didn’t miss seeing them completely.
The day was already leaning into afternoon, and we had many miles yet to go, so we regretfully drove past Yellow Bank Hills SNA and on to Bonanza Prairie SNA where we hoped to find slender milkvetch, a flower of special concern, and scarlet gaura, an uncommon plant here whose flowers look at though the bottom petals are missing. Both flowers are at the eastern edge of their range in Minnesota.
Sumac and tall grasses covered Bonanza Prairie’s lower slopes, but the sparser hilltops looked promising, so once again we climbed, this time past daisy fleabane, false gromwell, silky prairie clover, and prairie turnip leaves. Barely five minutes’ worth of climbing brought us to our first of several scarlet gaura plants, the blossoms, which wither throughout the day, already small and fading but still a vivid pink. No milkvetch, but on the way back to the car we did spot a curly green milkweed plant in bud.
Again we drove on, headed at last for Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge and the now-legendary (at least to us) ball cactus. Would it be blooming?
Not yet. But the pink-tinged buds promised splendor in the coming days, and the many brittle prickly pear cactus were covered with yellow buds, another future glory. We’ve lost count of how many times we’ve crossed the state to try to see ball cactus in bloom, but we’ll come again very soon—and this time we’re sure it will be blooming. As a bonus, we found a few tiny rough-seeded fameflowers, a Minnesota state-threatened plant, among the rocks. The plant’s flowers open briefly in full sunshine in late afternoon, and while we had plenty of sun to coax them open, the afternoon must not have been quite late enough for them yet.
Another time we might have waited patiently for the flowers to bloom, but we had one more stop on our circle tour and then many more miles before home. Another flower we’ve tried for several years to see blooming is red saltwort, mainly known at Minnesota’s only salt lake a few miles farther down the road. Not only did the flower still elude us, but the lake level was so high we couldn’t even see any plants and guessed they must all be underwater.
Tired but happy we turned toward home after a long day of blooming blanketflowers, small white lady’s slippers, budding ball cactus, sunshine, and the gift of time outdoors doing something we love: chasing Minnesota’s native wildflowers.
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’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.