Prime Time Prairie

May 23, 2021

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

Usually we drive to go flower chasing together, but Sunday we were meeting in Lime Springs, Iowa, Kelly coming up from Tennessee where she’d been visiting her daughter and new grandbaby, me coming down from Minneapolis where I have been working on the book launch for my new collaborative picture book, Begin with a Bee.  The day leaned in and out of rain all the way to the Iowa border. Overcast skies are good for photography, rain not so much, and Iowa obliged with rain stopping right across the state line.

We rendezvoused at a gas station and drove the last few miles to Hayden Prairie Preserve, 240 acres of tall grass prairie and the place where we’d first seen prairie shooting star last year. While prairie shooting star is more abundant overall in the U. S. than jeweled shooting star, in Minnesota prairie shooting star exists in only one known location. 

Hayden Prairie never disappoints.  This day prairie shooting star stole the show, multitudes of pale flowers in bud and in bloom. Plains wild indigo had also begun its elegant pale yellow flowering, and golden Alexanders burst like sunshine. Down in last year’s dried grasses more yellow star-grass than we’d ever seen before bloomed like a fallen sky. Here and there prairie blue-eyed grass bloomed, too. The rain held off, but the moisture-laden air made for vivid, saturated colors–prairie violet, bastard toadflax, bright orange puccoon, so many prairie shooting stars in whites and pinks—the prairie was alive with flowers now and with the promise of flowers to come. 

A smaller separate section of the prairie had been burned since we’d visited: last year’s dried grasses had vanished, and the ground between the plants showed black. Here, too, we saw prairie shooting star, plains wild indigo, bastard toadflax, puccoon, prairie violet, prairie ragwort, yellow star-grass, and prairie blue-eyed grass along with swamp saxifrage and prairie smoke.  But the highlight in this prairie patch was the hundreds of yellow lady’s-slipper leaves, some plants barely two inches tall, some clusters ready to burst into bloom.  We tiptoed our way along, marveling at their abundance and finally defaulting to the road so that we didn’t risk stepping on any orchid leaves.  Even the roadside ditch was beautiful with swamp saxifrage and the occasional cluster of yellow lady’s-slipper leaves and buds.

Roadside ditches were our next stop back in Minnesota. Across the road from what we have come to call the Rich Ditch we checked on a clump of yellow lady’s-slipper leaves that we’d seen in previous years.  Last year that ditch had been mowed, and we hadn’t found the leaves, but this year we were glad to see that they were back in a huge and healthy clump.  On the other side of the road in Rich Ditch proper we found wild geranium in bloom along with yellow star-grass, prairie blue-eyed grass, swamp saxifrage, rattlesnake master leaves, and edible valerian. A burst of yellow drew us to the far side of the ditch along a strip of woods and turned out to be wood betony, its flowers spiraling cheerfully. As we walked along the wooded edge of the ditch, we discovered more and more leaves of yellow lady’s-slipper that we hadn’t ever noticed before. 

Down the road a piece we stopped at another roadside ditch, where the only remaining prairie shooting stars in Minnesota grew. A friend had shown us this site last year, but the flowers had already gone to seed, and we were eager to see them in bloom.  See them we did, growing among the usual suspects of yellow star-grass, blue-eyed grass, edible valerian, rattlesnake master leaves, puccoon, bastard toadflax, and a single prairie smoke gone to graceful gossamer seed. Seeing prairie shooting star blooming in Minnesota has long been on our wish list, and we were glad and grateful to finally find them.

Our way back to the cities took us right by Iron Horse Prairie Scientific and Natural Area (SNA), a parcel of native prairie, so of course we had to check for small white lady’s-slipper, which we’d seen there the previous year.  And there they were, small and delicate (and white) and so fresh that some flowers hadn’t yet dropped open.  Other prairie plants blossomed—golden Alexanders, edible valerian, prairie ragwort, yellow star-grass, and prairie blue-eyed grass. But it was the small white lady’s-slippers that drew us across the prairie as we spied flower after flower in singles and clumps—too many to keep count. 

Finally, in a red Subaru and a white Subaru, we drove on back to the cities, our heads and our hearts full of prairie. 

The day leaned in and out of rain all the way home.

Author: Phyllis Root and Kelly Povo,

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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