A Million Milkweeds More or Less

July 5, 2020

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

On a hot, sunny day in July—a prairie day if ever there was one—we set off for Schaefer Prairie, a 160-acre remnant protected by the Nature Conservancy, where two showy milkweed plants had been sighted a few years ago.  Minnesota is home to fourteen species of milkweed, although one of the fourteen, purple milkweed, hasn’t been recorded in the state for over a hundred years.  We’ve seen eleven of the other thirteen milkweeds so far, leaving just prairie milkweed, which is rare, and showy milkweed which grows mainly in the western part of the state. The covid-19 pandemic has kept us closer to home this year, but we were hopeful that we could still find the showy milkweed without driving across the state. 

Schaefer prairie was bursting with flowers— showy tick-trefoil, prairie phlox, white prairie clover, purple prairie clover, smartweed, Virginia mountain mint, and lots and lots of milkweed. Butterfly-weed lit up the prairie in shades from orange to red, whorled milkweed bloomed near the edge of the road, and dark pink swamp milkweed punctuated the wetter places. Patches of Sullivant’s milkweed grew so densely that the sweet scent rose up from the hot earth and rolled over us.  

Surely in all of that milkweed, some of it would be showy. Surely we’d know it when we saw it since photos showed a kind of cross between common milkweed and a Chihuly sculpture with pointed pink hoods that seems to spiral out from the flowers.

Butterflies flitted, birds swooped, insects buzzed, and we looked closely at milkweed after milkweed.  Were these leaves the right size? Did this flower’s pink hoods look slightly longer than that plant’s flowers? After two hours of close observation of more Sullivant’s milkweed blossoms than we’d ever seen before, we conceded defeat.  But the day was still early, not yet noon, and we decided to drive north to two other locations where showy milkweed sightings have been documented. 

In a likely section of Regal Meadow, another Nature Conservancy site, we found wood lilies, butterfly-weed, more Sullivant’s milkweed, pale-spike lobelia, and prairie clovers blooming, but no showy milkweed. Still hopeful, we drove toward our last location, going slowly on the empty back roads and scanning the roadsides and ditches for any promising-looking milkweed.

One plant looked oh-so-slightly different, so we pulled over to investigate.  Close up the flowers’ pink hoods did look longer, and the stemless, dusty green leaves felt, well, felt-like when we rubbed them. Only one plant was blooming, but one was all we needed.  We had found showy milkweed close to home!

But why stop with one?  At our last stop, Roscoe Prairie Scientific and Natural Area, and wandered among Virginia mountain mint, leadplant, purple and white prairie clovers, coreopsis, small blue lobelia, larkspur, a few white spires of Culver’s root, and death camas, but hardly a milkweed did we see.  Still, it was a gorgeous rich prairie, and we were glad we’d made the trip.  Ready for home and bed, we headed back to the car, stopping to investigate what looked like leadplant gone to seed but turned out to be false indigo. And there, next to the false indigo plant, we saw two more showy milkweed blooming. We burst into grins.  Not one, but three showy milkweeds to add to our list.

Not every search ends so well, but this one did, making us happy for prairies, perseverance, and luck.  A prairie day rich in milkweeds and friendship.  A day well spent.   

Author: Phyllis Root and Kelly Povo, flowerchasers.com

Phyllis Root is the author of fifty books for children and has won numerous awards. Kelly Povo, a professional photographer for over thirty years, has exhibited in galleries and art shows across the country. She and Phyllis Root have collaborated on several books. This is their first book on Minnesota's Native Wildflowers.

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