Prairie Perfect

August 31, 2020

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

A hard week in a hard summer.
Yet another black man shot by police.
More Covid-19 deaths.
Politics that seek to divide us instead of unite us.

Overwhelmed by it all, we decided to head to Iron Horse Prairie Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) to search for gentians.  One of the finest prairie remnants in southeastern Minnesota, Iron Horse Prairie was saved by being sandwiched between two former railroad track spurs. The prairie lies below and between them. 

We followed the path into the SNA to where the prairie proper begins. Barely at the bottom of the slope we found them:  bottle gentian after bottle gentian after bottle gentian, their closed blue blossoms bright in the grass.  Bumblebees pollinate the flowers, fighting their way inside and out again. Who knows what evolutionary advantage being hard-to-get offers bottle gentians, but it works:  we found more blooming than we’d ever seen before.

Iron Horse holds two other kinds of gentians, fringed and stiff, and it wasn’t long before we found both.  Fringed gentian’s four petals overlap in a bloom not much more than an inch across.  Stiff gentian, its many blossoms lighter blue, always reminds us of rockets with its skyward pointing flowers. In one small area all three gentians grew in proximity, a gentian hat trick.

We’ve been to prairies this year where the sweat dripped from our hair in the heat, but on this day a sweet breeze kept us cool, and at times the clouds even covered the sun for Kelly’s photos. (Other times I held the shade screen for her in a variety of flower-chasing yoga poses.)  

Many of the flowers we’d seen here on earlier visits were already gone to seed—rattlesnake master, prairie clover, wild quinine—but many blazing stars still bloomed along with goldenrods, asters, smooth rattlesnake root, and, surprisingly, white rattlesnake root, which we’ve mostly seen at the edges of woods.  One theory:  trees used to grow along the now-cleared path into the SNA, and perhaps rattlesnake root took advantage of that shade to grow.  

On our way back to the cities we couldn’t resist stopping at McKnight Prairie, part of the Carleton College Arboretum. We’ve never been there at this time of year, but because of Covid-19 we’ve spent the summer going to places closer to home, and we’ve stopped here often. Now the prairie surprised us with Indian grass higher than our heads, the graceful stalks waving in the breeze that is an integral part of prairie life. Goldenrods, asters, and sweet everlasting bloomed along with partridge pea still flowering bright yellow while the sun lit the translucent seed pods that had already formed.

And then the surprise of the day:  rough-seeded fameflower, a small, state-threatened plant.  We’d seen small-flowered fameflower’s round, succulent-looking leaves (but no flowers) at Morton Outcrop SNA earlier in August.  And now we were looking down at rough-seeded fameflower, whose flowers only bloom for a day each and only at the end of the day.  A gift from the prairie that made our hearts happy.  

Our shadows stretched long across the prairie before we were ready to head home.  We walked back to the car with the prairie hills glowing in the late day’s slanting light, glad we had gone gentian hunting and grateful for the unlooked-for gift of seeing rough-seeded fameflowers in bloom.

A late summer prairie perfect day.


Author: Phyllis Root and Kelly Povo,

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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