What’s in a Name?

November 25, 2020

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

It’s been a tough year all around—pandemic, politics, the fight for racial justice.  One thing that’s made us glad, in the midst of it all, is searching for native wildflowers. We kept closer to home, took our own meals with us, avoided overnight stays, and only visited places where we might encounter few if any other people.

The season for wildflowers is over now.  It’s almost Thanksgiving, and snow has fallen again to cover the ground.  We’re still busy with wildflowers, catching up on all the information we’ve accumulated over the past eight months. We’re identifying Kelly’s photos of flowers that we didn’t recognize on sight, and I’m transcribing my lists of flowers seen from the scribbly notebook scrawls into a word document. It’s our winter work until March when the earliest wildflowers will reappear.

Typing in the names of flowers and my random notes of weather, animal sightings, birdcalls can transport me back to that particular day out in the field. Like magic incantations, just the names of particular flowers are enough to evoke time and place. 

Purple fringed orchid calls up an overcast day, perfect for photography.  We are driving through the 660 acres of Boot Lake Scientific and Natural Area (SNA).  The place feels vast, and we don’t even know where to begin.  At a T in the road we choose to go left (as it turns out, both arms of the T dead end quickly so we need to retrace our route) when a flash of purple at the roadside brings us to a braking halt. We pile out of the car—it’s our first (and as it turns out our only) sighting of a purple fringed orchid this year.  We crouch on the roadside, me holding back the grasses in front of the orchid, Kelly taking photos.  A lucky fork in the road.

Rough-seeded fameflower takes us back to a sandy hillside as the sun sinks low, cloaking the prairie in rich yellow light.  I’m admiring the brilliant flowers on a partridge pea when I hear Kelly chanting, “Same flower! Same flower! Same flower!”  “What’s the same flower?” I ask.  “More partridge pea?” “Fameflower!” she enunciates, and there are the small pink flowers we’ve been hoping to see all summer and that only open in the late light of day. Right place, right time.  

Downy gentian evokes an afternoon at Kasota Prairie SNA where sandhill cranes call, bees buzz, and the sunlight gleams on seeds spilling from milkweed pods. Alongside a path we find our first downy gentian of the year.  We crisscross the prairie, finding several more downy gentians blooming but none as pristine as the first sighting.  By the time we make our way back to that first flower for more photos, the sun has dropped in the sky, and to our surprise the flower has closed its petals.  Who knew that downy gentians were so connected to the strength of daylight?  We do, now. 

Hot prairie afternoons, rainy days in wetlands, canoe paddles on a floating bog lake—it all comes back to us with the sound of the names of flowers we’ve seen this past year. We’ve already got a wish list going for next year, when we hope to be on the far side of the pandemic. For this year, we’re grateful for flowers seen, new ones learned, and the hope we find in native wildflowers and the places they inhabit.

All of that in a name.  

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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