Prime Prairie Day

July 11, 2020
Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

Asclepius hirtella.  Prairie milkweed, the last of the milkweeds in Minnesota that we had yet to see.  Technically Minnesota has fourteen milkweeds, but purple milkweed is most likely extirpated, not seen in the state in over a hundred years. Prairie milkweed is almost as rare in Minnesota–it’s listed as state threatened and grows at only a few places in Mower County. 

But flowers don’t recognize borders, so when we learned that prairie milkweed grew just across the Iowa border in Hayden Prairie, a 242-acre state preserve near Lime City, we couldn’t resist trying to find it.

The day was prairie prime:  temperatures in the nineties, damp heat rising up from the ground to be blown away by intermittent prairie breezes.  The prairie itself bloomed gloriously, exuberant with leadplant, rattlesnake master, wild quinine, white wild indigo, black-eyed Susan, and the umbels of prairie shooting stars gone to seed.  From pictures we’d studied we thought we were looking for a tall plant with narrow, long, almost vertical leaves, and we scanned the prairie for anything that pointed up above the other plants. While the sun baked us and sweat dripped off the wet ends of our hair we trekked through first one area, then another while insects buzzed and butterflies pollinated.   Nothing even remotely resembled what we were looking for. Not all our searches end successfully, of course, and it was still a good day to be out in the prairie, marveling at the richness of earth left to its own devices. 

Tired, hot and hungry, we decided to look through one last section where we’d seen masses of large yellow lady’s-slippers on our last visit.   Maybe the ground there was a little wetter and more conducive both to the prairie milkweed and also to the western prairie fringed orchid we’d been told grew at Hayden. We’d do a quick survey before heading home in air-conditioned comfort.

This parcel of prairie bloomed, too, but no orchids and no prairie milkweeds in sight.  Then we spotted a plant that looked a little different from anything we’d seen, although nothing like what we’d pictured.  This plant was only a couple of feet tall with long, narrow leaves that didn’t grow vertically, and its shriveled blossom made it hard to determine what the flower had looked like when blooming.  Prairie milkweed and green milkweed have enough similarities to make it easy to confuse the two, although green milkweed wasn’t listed s growing at Hayden Prairie.  So what were we seeing?  

We weren’t sure, but since where one plant grows it’s a good bet others might be nearby, we spread out to investigate.  Minutes later, we found a similar plant in full bloom with the distinctive balls of blossoms. Who cared about being tired or hot or hungry—we had found a prairie milkweed!

More searching revealed another, then another, then another prairie milkweed, demure in the grass. In all we counted fifteen plants in various stages of bloom.  We’d been wrong about the height and wrong about the leaves, but there was no mistaking the delicate purplish-green flower clusters. 

And though we didn’t find western prairie fringed orchid in the preserve itself, a nearby ditch revealed seven of them, from bud to bloom.

A rare milkweed, a rare orchid, a rare prairie day.  We grinned the whole (air-conditioned) drive home.

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Author: kellypovo

Kelly Povo, a professional photographer for over thirty years, has exhibited in galleries and art shows across the country. Her cards, gift books, and calendars have been sold internationally. She and Phyllis Root have collaborated on several books. This is her first book on Minnesota's Native Wildflowers.

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