Looking Closer to Home, May 21, 2020
Over the past few years it’s become our tradition to head north in search of second spring over Memorial Day. This year’s late spring in the Twin Cities combined with the wisdom of not traveling unless necessary in this time of Covid-19 made us look closer to home for flower-chasing places.
A favorite first place of spring is River Terrace Prairie Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) near Cannon Falls, a half hour’s drive away. We always go for the pasqueflowers, but we’ve not really visited later in the year, so we set off to see what else might be blooming at the end of May. Not only did we see ground plum, blue-eyed grass, violet oxalis, hoary puccoon, bird’s-foot violet, prairie violet, and bastard toadflax, we also saw more kittentails blooming than we’ve ever imagined, plus whole hillsides of pasqueflowers gone to see and two still blooming. Prairie smoke blossomed bright pink, some in full bloom, others gone to wispy seed, and swathes of pussytoes raised their soft white paws in the air.
When we visited in April, we found only two early pasqueflowers blooming, and now at the end of May we’re seeing what we think are the last two. In between times, the prairie has become a whole new place.
Our next stop had a specific goal: to see if we could find bladderpod, one of Minnesota’s rare plants found only in Goodhue County. Following information from a fellow flower lover we followed a trail through the woods to a steep goat prairie, where we found ourselves wishing we were goats as we carefully picked our way down a hillside path. Even though our eyes were fixed on where to safely put our feet, we managed to look around enough to spy hoary puccoon, fringed puccoon, blue-eyed grass, bird’s foot violet, prairie violet, bastard toadflax, columbine, and downy painted cup. And there, almost at the foot of the hillside, we spotted the bright yellow flowers of bladderpod blooming in the sandy soil. All that remained was to admire them, photograph them, reclimb the hill, trek through the woods, and drive home, full of delight at a new look at a familiar place and a new-to-us flower in bloom.
Tracking Railroad Prairies, May 22
Friday we set out to visit all the railroad prairies we know of (and one we didn’t know about but stumbled upon). Fires sparked by trains wheels help renew the narrow corridors of prairie along railroad track rights of way. When the railroad lines were abandoned, the prairie growth persisted.
We began at Racine Prairie SNA, a strip of land sandwiched between a highway and a farm field. Much of the site was brushy or marshy, with croaking frogs competing with rushing traffic on the highway. Here we found the deep pink buds and blue flowers of wild geranium along with golden Alexanders, yellow star grass, and a scattering of violets in bloom. Many leaves promised future flowers, including rattlesnake master leaves with their toothy edges and the deeply-lobed, yellow-veined shiny green leaves of compass plant. An enormous anthill teemed with activity; ants have been called “ecosystem engineers” for their roles in aerating soil, dispersing seeds, and recycling nutrients. A sign at the site informed us that of Minnesota’s 16 prairie communities, the tallgrass prairie has the most number of native species–over 300 of them. Car after car whizzed by us while we wondered at how much rich life persisted in this thin strip of land.
Next stop was a roadside ditch where we’d previously seen clusters of leaves we thought might be small while lady’s-slipper, a flower we were hoping to find in bloom. After much searching we found the leaves but no buds or blossoms, and from the size of the leaves guessed they might be yellow lady’s-slipper, a guess that was later confirmed by a naturalist.
Shooting Star Prairie SNA, another railroad remnant, looked so overgrown we were doubtful at first at what we might find there. The prairie shooting stars that this particular SNA was named for (already rare in Minnesota) have vanished under road construction, but we did find wild strawberry, puccoon, false Solomon’s seal, and wood anemone blooming, along with the leaves of stiff goldenrod, Sullivant’s milkweed, bergamot, and prairie alumroot.
One of the maps listed Taopi Prairie, which we’d never heard of, so we stopped to check it out. Here we discovered another small railroad prairie, maintained by members of Prairie Vision, with golden Alexanders blooming and the leaves of stiff goldenrod, bergamot, milkweed, yarrow, and meadow rue. A sweet and unexpected find.
Wild Indigo Prairie SNA, another railroad remnant, is a twelve-mile long corridor of land with three access points from the road. Despite our efforts, we couldn’t find the first parking spot, but we parked at the second spot and hiked both ways along a tunnel of trees. Yellow violets grew thick, and a ditch burbled by between the tree corridor and a farm field, but after wandering and wondering when we would come to any prairie, we drove on to the third access point. Here we found rattlesnake master leaves, compass plant leaves, blue flag leaves, and golden Alexanders and wild strawberry blooming.
We stopped at one last railroad remnant of mesic tallgrass prairie in Dodge County, and we had barely stepped in among the prairie grasses when we spotted several small white lady’s-slippers, along with abundant edible valerian, blue-eyed grass, bastard toadflax, puccoon, yellow star grass, and the usual suspects of leaves of prairie blossoms yet to come.
A day full of prairies that survived because of railroads, prairie fires, and wise-minded people who helped and still help to keep them safe.
Perhaps next year we’ll be heading north again in search of second spring, but spending this year’s spring closer to home has opened up possibilities of new flowers and new sites to explore and made us glad for all the places, neglected and protected, where we can chase our native flowers.