Prairie Hopping, Day One and Two

September 18-19, 2020

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

It’s mid-September, but the prairie is still going, and so are we.  We’ve done only day trips so far this summer because of corona virus, but now we plan a three-day trip to western Minnesota taking along a camper so we have a place to stay at night without worrying about social distancing.  Identifying each of Minnesota’s eighteen different goldenrods is one of our primary goals for the trip, but we also have a laundry list of flowers that grow mainly in the western part of the state. 

Friday noon we head off to Minnesota’s only saline lake which has water about a third as salty as seawater.  The lake itself is only about three hundred acres in size but still smells like the ocean.  We slurp our way along the thin rim of soggy sand and dried reeds that edges the lake and happen upon a small succulent-looking plant that we later identify as red saltwort. We are thrilled to find a plant we haven’t seen before.

Next stop: Yellow Banks Hill Scientific and Natural Area (SNA), seventy-eight rolling acres of prairie grasses with bright spots of color from dotted blazing star, goldenrods, and asters. Here we identify the yellow flowers and feathery leaves of cut-leaf iron plant and the silvery leaves of Missouri milkvetch, two more new-to-us plants. We hoped to see velvety goldenrod, listed as growing here, but no luck.  We’ll keep looking.

Home for the night is Big Stone Lake State Park, where the wind comes across from South Dakota to rustle the trees, and the sky fills with more stars than we ever see in the city. 

We leave early the next day (though not as early as in high summer, since daylight comes later now, and besides, the camper is comfy with a second cup of coffee). At a corner of Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge we stop briefly to search for and identify goldenrods.  We find goldenrods aplenty, some already colorfully going to seed, but soon realize we don’t know enough to identify a plant whose description might read:  “leaves may be pointed or rounded, smooth or serrated, hairy or not.” Turns out there’s a good reason we have simply said in the past, “Yep, that’s some kind of solidago,” and moved on. We do manage to add a couple of goldenrods to the list of ones we are (almost) sure of–stiff goldenrod, grass-leaved goldenrod, showy goldenrod, grey goldenrod, and upland white goldenrod. Beyond that, we put identifying goldenrods on our “next year” list and drive on. Still, we are glad we stopped to see the hills and sloughs of Big Stone burning with fall colors in the early morning light.

On our way to the next stop, Ottertail Prairie SNA, we pass a small lake crowded at one end with pelicans and what we tentatively identify as cormorants. Around one edge of the lake a line of twenty or so egrets elegantly stands. When we stop the car for Kelly to photograph them, the pelicans and cormorants lift up in a flurry of wings and set down again in the middle of the lake while the egrets simply watch, calm and unmoving.

Otter Tail Prairie SNA is 320 acres, so rather than walk across the whole expanse we park to walk an area of it, then drive along to the next area and walk some more, looking for pleated gentians, which only grow in the northwestern prairies.  We find one bottle gentian blooming, then no more gentians for several hours until we drive to another side of the SNA.  There within a few minutes we discover both bottle gentians gone to seed and also smaller gentians still blooming blue whose leaves look slightly different.  Bottle gentians, or pleated gentians still in bud? Here, too, we don’t have enough information to tell decisively what we are seeing.  We find the same two kinds of plants at Western Prairie SNA but no open pleated gentians, whose distinctive white-speckled petals would make identification easy. 

We end the day at Buffalo River State Park with a brief visit to nearby Bluestem Prairie SNA, then head back to the camper as the sun sets red in a haze from western wildfires.  Tomorrow more prairies, more searching, and who knows?  Maybe blanketflower, another flower on our wish list.  

Maybe even a blooming pleated gentian.

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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