September 16, 2018
On a day when the sunrise lit the pillowed clouds on fire and the sky was turning autumn-blue, we went looking for blue on the ground. Fall is a time for trees aflame, but the prairie flaunts its colors, too, in the reds and browns and golds of grasses, the whites and blues of asters, the cheery yellow of many kinds of goldenrods, the angular blue blossoms of great blue lobelia. Blue blooms underfoot as well, hidden in the grasses. Gentians, blue flowers of fall.
Minnesota has several kinds of gentians, and we were looking for four of the more common ones, hoping for at least a hat trick of species: bottle gentian, fringed, gentian, stiff gentian, downy gentian. We started at Oronoco Prairie Scientific and Natural Area (SNA), where we’d seen the downy gentians a few years before on the undisturbed part of the prairie, hoping, too, that we might see the federally endangered prairie bush clover we’d read grows in this SNA site. We wandered through the grasses, through flowers still blooming and those gone to seed, soaking up the prairie colors and breezes, but we did not spot any prairie bush clover nor could we find where we had once seen gentians blooming. Had the grass grown too tall, the goldenrod or sumac too thick? We didn’t know, but, hungry for gentians, we drove on south to Iron Horse SNA, where we’d also seen gentians in the past.
And here in the low areas near the old railroad embankment we found blue: bottle gentians still in bloom and some going to seed, stiff gentians pointing their multitude of blossoms at the sky, small fringed gentians most of which had yet to open. Great Plains ladies’ tresses still held onto a few white blossoms, swamp lousewort had gone to seed, and the spiky seed heads of rattlesnake master dotted the landscape.
No downy gentian (we have a few weeks yet to search), but a day rich in prairie and a gentian hat trick–sun-soaked, satiated, happy, we drove north toward home.
Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo