Leaf Looking

November 1, 2020

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

Just when we think the wildflower season is over, another glorious day comes along–a bit windy, a little brisk (read: freezing), but with brilliant blue sky through leafless branches. Who could resist a trip to look for one last sign of wildflowers?

On the first of November we bundle up and drive to Mary Schmidt Crawford Woods Scientific and Natural Area (SNA), a 120-acre Big Woods remnant, to look for putty-root orchid leaves. The orchid itself blooms in May and June, but the leaves wither and disappear as the flower stalk begins to grow, while new leaves appear in the fall and overwinter. Finding those autumn leaves is a good way to mark where to look for the flowers in springtime.

We’d been given some advice from an expert about where to search in this SNA: along the side of the trail into the woods, where, as a bonus, we might also see autumn coral root done blooming. But when we arrive at the woods, the whole open forest floor is covered in leaves. Trail? What trail? Where?

So we do what we often do—we wander. Hepatica leaves, which will persist until spring, stand out on the forest floor. We find an odd-looking flower gone to seed that looks like something you’d hang on a Christmas tree, a small sphere of radiating spokes with tiny iridescent blue balls at the tips. Perhaps a sarsaparilla flower? A few spots smell suspiciously of skunk, and always the leaves rustle underfoot.

And then, among all the brown leaves on the ground, Kelly spots some still-green ones, crinkly and beautifully striped with white veins: putty-root orchid leaves. And then I find some, and then we find more. And still more. We’re beside ourselves with delight.

Autumn coral root? We never do see that, but we’ll look again when we come back next year to see putty-root and other spring flowers, and we’ll come earlier in the fall to search for autumn coral root blooming. For today we’re almost giddy to be out in the woods and sunshine, to forget for a while the stress of the wider world, and to find what we’d come to see: putty-root leaves.

For the first of November (or for any time) it is a splendid wildflower day.

P.S. Back home, a search reveals that we did indeed see wild sarsaparilla gone to seed, a new sight for us. The world is full of surprises.

Author: Phyllis Root and Kelly Povo, flowerchasers.com

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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