Prairie Hopping, Day Three

September 20, 2020

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

We awake to treetops tossed by wind, a forecast that the wind will die by 3 o’clock and that no rain will fall.  Our first stop, Frenchman’s Bluff Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) is a place we both immediately fall in love with.  Deep ravines and scooped-out areas must once have been mined for gravel since we see similar mines nearby, but dry prairie species have reclaimed the dug-out areas, and the hills are covered with shortgrass prairie plants.  Even though wind is gusting up to 17 miles per hour, down in the low places and on the leeward side of hills we are pleasantly warm and sheltered. Out in the wind we shiver and pull our windbreakers close. 

White asters, blue asters, grey goldenrod, stiff goldenrod punctuate the reddish little bluestem grass that rolls with the wind like waves on an ocean.  Many prairie plants are long gone to seed:  leadplant, rough blazing star, prairie clover, dotted blazing star, prairie onion, thimbleweed in puffy white clouds.  An abundance of prairie smoke leaves makes us promise to return next spring to see the hills covered with their flowers along with the pasque flowers and two kinds of pussytoes whose leaves we spot. 

We’re surprised by how many gentians we find, both bottle and downy, including one downy gentian plant with at least a dozen stems and many more buds.  We’ve only seen downy gentian flowers open before, and we marvel at the swirling spirals of color on the still-closed buds.

Blanketflowers are listed at this SNA, but we look in vain for the bright red and yellow blossoms rising up like pinwheels in the prairie. Instead, we find one bunch of tall sturdy stalks with white hairs and large, round, spiky seed heads that we think might possibly be blanketflower gone to seed.  If they are, they have clearly not read the descriptions that say they bloom from May to September.  This gone-to-seed bunch is our only clue, and while we’re not completely sure we are looking at blanketflower, maybe at our next stop we’ll find more evidence.

Next stop is Felton Prairie SNA where blanketflowers are also listed.  Our first stop has a convenient patch by the roadside of more tall, hairy stalks and spiky seed heads, which strengthens our conviction that we really are seeing blanketflower gone to seed.   Yet another good reason to come back earlier next year to see them in bloom.

We want to check out one more section of Felton prairie so, following written directions plus an I-phone blue dot, we turn down a single lane dirt road between farm fields.  A bullet-hole-pocked sign warns that this road is minimum maintenance travel at your own risk, and we soon learn why. The road quickly becomes two tire tracks between trees, and the tracks turn into muddy ruts.  Not wanting to risk damaging the car, we finally find a place wide enough to turn around. Reluctant  to turn back yet, we park and continue on foot, skirting the muddy puddles.

SNA signs eventually prove us right, but trees and shrubs grow too tightly for us to get inside the SNA.  Still, the wind tosses the glowing golden aspen leaves, it’s a fine day for a walk, and we’ve come this far. Why turn back now?  A little farther on, the trees open up into prairie, and there among the grasses are the same tall, black, spiky seed heads we’ve seen twice now.  This time they are scattered all around, the mother lode (for us, so far) of blanketflowers. 

We’re certain there is an easier way into this section of SNA.  In fact, we’re pretty certain that no one else has ever tried to get in down this loosely named road.  But we’re glad we came, glad we found what we’re now certain are blanketflowers, and we laugh as we make our careful way back to the car and to the highway around ruts and through puddles.

Now we scan the roadsides for seed heads rising up like black punctuation marks as we drive to our last stop of the day, Bluestem Prairie SNA. Along one side of the SNA we stop to investigate more likely blanketflower candidates, and as we hop over a shallow ditch we look down at pale yellow flowers and round little seed heads.  A quick i.d. check tells us we are looking at grass of Parnassus, an unexpected find.

The wind has not died down at 3 as promised, the zero percent chance of rain falls briefly on us, but we don’t care. We carry our rain gear, and when Kelly wants to take a photo I hold the flower still against the gusts. Bluestem Prairie offers up flowering Great Plains ladies’-tresses on their way to seed, downy gentian in bloom, more blanketflower gone to seed, more grass of Parnassus, smooth rattlesnake root, dotted blazing star in seed, and large-flowered penstemmon with its distinctive seed pods and dried leaves.

It is a very good (even if windy) wildflower-chasing 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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