A Breathtaking Blowout of Violets

May 2, 2021

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

Minnesota winters are long.  Minnesota springs might burst upon us or hesitate, teasingly, snowing one day, then warming the next. Flower chasers know to make the most of the time they have to seek out spring’s native wildflowers, which always seem to bloom briefly.

On the first Sunday in May, the breeze cool, the sky overcast, the air hinting of rain, we went to Grey Cloud Dunes hoping we were neither too early nor too late to see the birdfoot violets blooming in a sand blowout along the top of the dunes.

Grey Cloud Dunes Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) near Cottage Grove reaches from bluff tops that were once the banks of Glacial River Warren down to the Mississippi River. From the trail along the top of the bluff the trees below were a quilt of every conceivable shade of green.  Pelicans sailed in formation above the river.

We followed a sandy trail down and up through the sweet scent of bushes whose name we do not know but that surprise us every spring when they permeate the air. Pollinators buzzed in the heady-smelling flowers, and birdsong punctuated the sky. A quick check down a side trail revealed the few pasqueflowers we had seen earlier this year, done blooming but still beautiful with their feathery seeds.

Leafy artemisia leaves abounded, and at least one of Minnesota’s six kinds of pussytoes bloomed (we are still learning to tell them apart). We passed delicate purple flowers of ground plum and just-opening prairie smoke blossoms, deep pink against last year’s dried grasses.  Wind swayed the prairie grasses. Large beardtongue’s distinctive leaves cropped up along the path, a promise of flowers to come.

Then we came to the violets. 

In a blowout scooped on both sides of the trail, an explosion of delicate purple flowers from pale blues to vivid purples spread across the sand. Each flower had a small yellow “beak” at the center, one way we can tell birdfoot violets from the similar-looking prairie violet, which has a hairy “beard” at the center. The flowers spread beyond the blowout and up into last year’s prairie grasses, and we swore we were seeing more of them than we saw last year.  

We were not too early. We were not too late. We had come at just the right time for this spectacular springtime display, and we lingered, knowing that because of our busy lives we might not see them again until next spring. 

When we finally returned to the car, which was parked by the Hadley Avenue entrance to the SNA, we decided to investigate the other entrance to the SNA off 110th Street. Here we found a well-walked path that led us easily to the same blowout bursting with violets. No matter which direction we came from, these birdfoot violets took our breath away.

Two sightings (from different directions!) of birdfoot violets blooming in abundance under a wide prairie sky–the kind of day wildflower chasers dream of.

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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