Flower Chasing East to West

May 9, 2021

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

Twinleaf is a flower that blooms so briefly that it’s easy to miss. We’d seen its leaves and seeds a few years ago along a rustic road in Wisconsin, then found frost-nipped flowers the next year but had yet to visit at the right time to see the flowers in full bloom.  

This year we kept as close a watch as we could from a distance of an hour or more away.  On a trip down to the rustic road a week earlier we had seen twinleaf shoots a few inches tall which gave us hope for flowers if we timed things right. The first Thursday evening in May as daylight lingered we made a mad dash down to Wisconsin to see if we could finally catch twinflower blooming. White large-flowered trillium and yellow large-flowered bellwort dotted the hillsides under the trees, and Dutchman’s breeches and squirrel corn still bloomed.

And so did twinleaf.

A small clump of the distinctive leaves held three flowers so delicate that a passing breeze dislodged a petal. We had remembered many more leaves of plants from previous years and searching along the roadside revealed a few additional clumps, one already gone to seed, one with no trace of bud, flower, or seed.  Where did the other plants we remembered disappear to?  We didn’t know, but we were ecstatic to have finally seen three twinleaf flowers in their brief bloom.

Friday afternoon we set out in the opposite direction, west across the state almost to the border, in search of two more uncommon flowers:  yellow prairie violet (state threatened) and Missouri milkvetch (state special concern). 

Yellow prairie violet has only been found in a few places in Minnesota, in part because it is at the eastern edge of its range and in part because of habitat destruction.  Missouri milkvetch, also at the extreme edge of its range and facing habitat threats, is found only in nine Minnesota counties. Both plants are listed as growing in Yellow Bank Hills Scientific and Natural Area (SNA), 78 acres of grassy hillsides and gravelly blowouts on the far western side of the state. 

We arrived at the SNA on a sunny, windy afternoon and crunched our way across last year’s grass to the gravelly hilltops where we’d seen the leaves of Missouri milkvetch on a previous visit. Early in May, we quickly realized, the best way to explore a dry hill prairie was to think small and look closely. Underneath last year’s dried grasses we caught small glimpses of green leaves that tantalized us:  what will they be once they flower? 

A few prairie smoke buds were opening, and here and there tiny white flowers bloomed. (We later learned that one of the small flowers was probably allium textile, wild white onion—thank you, Derek.) We skirted the places where the prickly red stems of prairie rose clustered together and spotted an occasional Northern Idaho biscuitroot’s ferny leaves, although most of the flowers had finished blooming for the year. 

Near the top of the hills we spotted the lovely purple blooms and sprawling silky leaves of Missouri milkvetch, first one plant, then another, then another.  A similar low-growing plant nearby with pale flowers we tentatively identified as lotus milkvetch, another new-to-us find.  And on the side of a hill tucked into the grasses we found one, then two, then four yellow prairie violets with lance-shaped leaves, all blooming brightly in the early prairie. 

Two uncommon plants on one hillside—well worth the drive from one side of the state to the other. 

That evening we camped at Lac Qui Parle State Park. Lac Qui Parle translates as “lake that talks,” and we listened to geese call as the sun set a brilliant orange over the river below the campground.

Saturday morning dawned as though someone had set the sky on fire. The thermometer read 39 degrees as we set out for Mound Spring Prairie SNA, another SNA close to the South Dakota border. Hills rolled over the landscape with new green sprouts poking up through last year’s grasses, and we wandered up and down the hillsides wrapped in many layers against chilly wind, searching for signs of flowers. Here, too, Northern Idaho biscuitroot was mostly done blooming; pasqueflowers had mostly gone to seed, although a few were still blooming bravely.  We found prairie smoke, tiny western rock jasmine as close to blooming as we’ve ever seen it with yellow whitlow grass nearby, and one cheery fringed puccoon growing in a disturbed patch of dirt. 

Finally as we made our way back toward the car we rounded a hillside and spotted  small lance-shaped leaves.  Could these be yellow prairie violets, we wondered, but we didn’t wonder long. Tiny in the grass, yellow flower after yellow flower blossomed, some singly, some in bunches, and we found many more clumps of the distinctive leaves:  a mother lode of yellow prairie violets that made us laugh with delight.  After hours of windy wandering we had found them.

 As we left the SNA, the road we were on ended up taking us into South Dakota.  We had travelled border to border on our wildflower searches and found treasures at both sides of the state. To add to the riches, a quick stop at a WMA revealed the brilliant blue buds of the briefly blooming Carolina anemone. 

We had come on a search for two uncommon flowers and found so much more—a gift from the early prairie, whipped by wind and revealing her flowers.

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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