Tiny Treasures on the Rocks

April 10, 2021

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

Morton Outcrops Scientific and Natural Area rises up rounded and knobbly from the highway.  These rocks, made of Morton gneiss, are over 3 billion years old, some of the oldest rocks in the world. In places the rock itself looks as though it had flowed like water, with swirling bands of pink and white and gray. A rocky habitat might not seem the ideal place to look for wildflowers, but between 150 and 200 species of native plants have been documented in these 15 acres, many finding a roothold in the cracks and crevices of the rocks.  

We’ve come to these outcrops, rounded by glacial outwash river water and pocketed with potholes and pools, to look for one of Minnesota’s tiniest wildflowers, western rock jasmine. It doesn’t take us long to find clusters of the tiny plant, thanks to a knowledgeable friend who’s told us where to look.  Without his help it would have been easy for us to overlook a plant less than an inch tall with flower stalks that look like the ribs of an upside down umbrella. True to its name, western rock jasmine grows on the edges of rocky places.  It’s an earlier bloomer, but we are still too early to see it blooming. Just finding the plants in bud, though, delights us.

We’re on the hunt for other uncommon wildflowers as well, ones that grow mainly in this habitat of rocks dotted with pools and clumps of moss in shades of green.  We find the segmented leaves of Carolina cranesbill, another rock outcrop inhabitant that will bloom in June.  Among the distinctive lobed leaves of Caroline anemone we find a single flower, already blooming. 

Finding northern Idaho biscuitroot takes us longer, but we are happy crisscrossing the rocks, peering into crevices, trying to distinguish biscuitroot’s blue-green ferny looking leaves among last year’s dead grasses.  We find scattered leaves and a single blossom whose leaves have been eaten away but no plant with both leaves and flowers.  Then, in one corner of the rocks, we stumble across clusters of leaves, many blooming, others almost done blooming, and declare this the mother lode of northern Idaho biscuitroot, at least for this day in this amazing place.

Today, under a cloudy sky with a cool breeze blowing the scent of spring around us, we are thrilled with the tiny treasures we have seen.

A few miles down the road along the Minnesota River is Cedar Rock SNA adjacent to Cedar Rock Wildlife Management Area (WMA). The website lists rock outcrops at the SNA, so, giddy with success and already in love with outcrops, we decide to stop briefly before heading home. We park by the WMA and set off across a piece of prairie toward where we think the river and possible outcrops might be, but halfway across the prairie we veer away toward a glimpse of rocks to see what they might hold.

At the top of a small hill on a spreading outcrop we find ourselves staring at more prickly pear cactus than we ever seen before, growing like small, spiky headstones on the rocks and in the grass—at least a hundred of them.  We tread carefully—there are few places that don’t have one of the prickly pear pads protruding—and find the leaves of Carolina cranesbill along with northern Idaho biscuitroot blooming.  In a small indentation of the rocks a tiny dot of yellow whitlow-grass blooms, hardly bigger than western rock jasmine.

We went to Morton outcrops in search of specific flowers and plants, but we love, too, this kind of chance discovery, unlooked for and amazing. 

We’re not ready today to take the long hike through the WMA to the SNA, so we decide to drive along the road that borders them just to see what me might find when we return, which we promise ourselves we will do.  A river separates the road from the SNA so we can’t reach it from the road without wading across (something we’ve done in other small rivers and creeks but not today and not in this swift-looking current).  Along the road we discover another delight, delicate purple pasque flowers blooming in the grassy shoulder. We’ve seen pasque flowers before, but never this roadside surprise.  

Who could stop now?  Not us.  Driving on, we find and follow a narrow trail that leads up a hill through woods and down toward the little river.  More delights:  scattered bloodroot and anemone along with ramps growing under the trees.

Finally we head home, saturated with a day of flower chasing, from tiny treasures to unexpected cactus to roadside surprises.  We can’t imagine a better way to spend a day.

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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