July 14, 2021
Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo
Often our prairie visits are hot, dry, and sunny, but Schaefer Prairie in the early evening after a rain was cool, wet, and cloudy, perfect for going on a milkweed search. A friend had told us that showy milkweed grew here, and we’d looked for it unsuccessfully last year on one of those hot, sunny days. Now we wandered the prairie in rain pants and boots, not only because of the wet grass but also because of the poison ivy that, alas, also thrives here.
But so do so many other prairie flowers, their colors rich in the saturated light—grey-headed coneflower, purple prairie clover, white prairie clover, wild bergamot, Virginia mountain mint, leadplant, marsh skullcap, silvery scurf pea, Culver’s root, prairie blazing star budding into bloom. We admired and noted and photographed, but it was milkweed we most wanted to see.
Minnesota lists fourteen different kinds of milkweed, and we’ve seen thirteen of them without much hope of the fourteenth, purple milkweed, last recorded in Minnesota over 125 years ago. The deep magenta flowers of swamp milkweed were the first milkweed we spotted in our evening search, then butterfly weed with its vivid orange-to-red flowers. Sullivant’s milkweed and common milkweed bloomed as well. It’s taken us a while to be relatively sure of the differences between common milkweed and Sullivant’s milkweed since both have similar pink clusters of flowers, but we’ve learned to look at the leaves– Sullivant’s milkweed leaves are more upright and feel smooth instead of furry.
Four milkweeds in one prairie felt like a wealth of milkweeds, but we still had hopes of finding showy milkweed, which is more common in Minnesota’s western prairies. After searching the wetter end of Schaefer prairie we headed for the more uphill, drier end. Evening light rolled across the land, a sweet breeze blew, birds called, and we meandered, content just to be out in a prairie evening.
Then we saw it.
One showy milkweed, its long flower “horns” unmistakable, its flowers edging towards being past their prime but still vivid pink against the prairie green. High fives and whoops ensued. Showy milkweed forms colonies, so we looked around for more plants. We didn’t find any blooming, but the leaves of some nearby plants made us hopeful for more showy milkweed another year.
We drove home full of prairie, rich light after rain, and an evening of many milkweeds.
Including the Schaefer showy.