September 6, 2020
Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo
Once the spring wildflowers fade, we seldom go back to the woods. Instead we head for prairie and bog and rocky shores where flowers bloom into the fall. But when word came that autumn coral root was blooming in a woods at a county park, we hopped in the car and drove straight there. Last fall we’d trekked through Miesville Ravine in an unsuccessful search for this inconspicuous orchid. Now, thanks to specific instructions generously given, we found it almost as soon as we arrived at the park.
Autumn coral root, like most of the coral roots, has no chlorophyll and depends on a relationship with mycorrhizal fungi for food. Its yellow-green to brownish color provides good camouflage against the fall forest floor, but we found clumps and single plants both. Minnesota Wildflowers states that this is a plant perhaps only a mother could love, and both of us, mothers, loved it. In the same area: many many ghost pipe plants, which also lack chlorophyll, glowing white in the muted light under the trees.
We also identified the leaves of several springtime flowers—bloodroot, hepatica, Solomon’s seal—and the bright red berry clusters of Jack in the pulpit gone to seed and swore we’d come back to this rich little bit of woods in the spring to catch these flowers blooming.
Another stop at Rush River County Park led us up a tilty railroad tie stairs to a small but rich prairie remnant where we saw cylindric blazing star, leadplant, asters, prairie onion, goldenrods, harebell, and, most surprising, blanket flower—lovely, but most likely a garden escapee as it doesn’t grow in this part of the state. We also saw many cedars encroaching on this piece of native prairie and hope that plans are being made to remove them to let the prairie thrive in sunlight. We have so little native prairie left that we should do everything possible to keep what we still have while we still have it.
The sun shone, a sweet breeze blew, temperatures were in the seventies, and we were close enough to Kasota Prairie Scientific and Natural Area (SNA), to drive on down to look for downy gentian, which grows in dry, hilly ground. The SNA list of wildflowers for Kasota Prairie doesn’t include any gentians, but I had a memory of seeing many bottle gentians there years ago, so we went in hope of seeing bottle or downy gentian—or even both.
Even with poison ivy rampant in the SNA (thank you, rubber boots, for keeping us poison ivy-free) the prairie still delights with white asters, blue asters, purple asters, goldenrod abuzz with bees, prairie grasses, big bluestem, prairie onion, and blazing stars. And there, not more than a minute along a path into the prairie, we found a downy gentian brilliantly blue. A few minutes later, we found another. Hopeful, we traversed the prairie, marveling at all the butterflies whose names we don’t know and watching for the telltale gentian blue. We were almost to the other side when we spotted a bottle gentian, its leaves pristine, its flowers blooming not only at the top but also in two other leaf axils along the stem—the most beautiful gentian either of us had ever seen in all our gentian hunting days.
One more downy gentian and one more bottle gentian revealed themselves. Kelly wanted one more photograph of downy gentian number two, so we made our slow way back toward it, stopping to search for a Kalm’s lobelia we thought we’d seen earlier this summer. No lobelia, and by the time we reached the downy gentian, the day had wound down enough that the flower had closed up its petals. So had downy gentian number one. Who knew the flowers closed up as the light waned? We knew now—one more tiny bit of knowledge about the wildflowers we love.
In a month where we expect to see goldenrods, grasses, asters, and blazing stars, we also found the unexpected. Autumn coral root, ghost pipe in abundance, downy gentian, and a perfect bottle gentian. We drove home so excited, satisfied, and satiated with sunshine and new-to-us flowers that we forgot to eat supper- yet another first.