This year of intense drought has pushed some wildflowers ahead of their usual blooming times and left others so stressed they might not bloom at all this year. This weekend we set off to see how a few of the last flowers on this year’s wish list might be doing: pleated gentian, bog adder’s mouth, and velvety goldenrod. Since each blooms in a different habitat, we mapped a route up to Iron Springs Scientific and Natural Area (SNA), on toward Pembina Trail SNA, and finally down the western border to Yellow Bank Hills SNA.
We left Minneapolis in early morning coolness, but by the time we reached Iron Springs Bog SNA the day was beginning to heat up. Under the trees the air was still sweetly cool, and we made one last intense search for bog adder’s mouth, either blooming or gone to seed. We saw lots of green adder’s mouth gone to seed, a few one-flowered pyrola still blooming, lesser rattlesnake plantain gone to seed, tall northern bog orchid, northern green orchid, blunt-leaved orchid gone to seed, and one-sided pyrola gone to seed. But no matter how we scoured the hummocks of moss for the diminutive bog adder’s mouth (3 to 7 inches tall) we maintained our perfect record of not finding it no matter how hard we looked. Still, it was a lovely morning to be in a bog, the wind in the pine trees, a sense of moisture in the air, and a whole marshy area full of spotted Joe Pye weed blooming near the creek.
Our next stop was a wildlife management area (WMA) where several years ago we had seen western prairie fringed orchid in bloom. Although we knew we were well past the orchid’s bloom time, we wanted to verify its location. The roadside ditch where we’d spotted the orchid in past years was dry, and we couldn’t find a trace of even the orchid’s leaves. We did see kalm’s lobelia vigorously blooming its small cheery blue flowers alongside pale American grass of parnassus blossoms. Up on the WMA itself we found dried brown leaves that looked to be western prairie fringed orchid but no sign that the plants had flowered this year. We’ll be back earlier next year to see if the orchids survived this year’s drought. We hope so.
Up in the prairie we also found the distinctive leaves of bottle gentian, although the buds were so desiccated we doubted they would bloom at all this year.
Our last stop of the day was Pembina Trail SNA where we searched for more gentians, finding the leaves of some in a dry ditch with no blossoms. Places that looked like they had once been wetter now crackled under our feet as though the prairie had been burned. And in a way it has —even though the prairie evolved in sun and dryness and wind, this year has felt particularly brutal for many wildflowers. We ended the day feeling parched ourselves no matter how much water we drank.
Sunday as we headed south to Otter Tail Prairie SNA a distant line of rain fell from grey clouds giving us hope for more rain soon. The day had turned sunny by the time we reached Otter Tail Prairie, but the prairie itself was a welcome surprise. Even though ditches and depressions which had once been wetter were dry now, grasses were still green, and a blue bottle gentian beckoned from the roadside. We wandered the prairie hoping for pleated gentian, which is listed as growing there. We found lots of gentian, all bottle, some with dried up buds and blossoms but many blooming brightly. Pink prairie onion, purple northern plains blazing star, yellow goldenrods, pale blue asters, and the leaves of silvery scurfpea made a quilt of color in the long green grasses bending in the wind. Finding this greener (though still drier than usual) prairie made our hearts glad.
We had wondered how a dry hill prairie would do in a dry year, and walking across the brittle grass of Yellow Bank Hills SNA we couldn’t tell much difference from when we visited last September. We found dotted blazing star blooming along with blue vervain and lots of goldenrods. Although we didn’t identify the velvety goldenrod we were hoping for, we did figure out how to tell the difference between cutleaf ironplant and hairy false goldenaster, which at first glance can look similar to us: hairy false goldenaster has hairy lance-like leaves, while cutleaf ironplant’s leaves are divided into many smaller segments.
From green to dry to green to dry, it was a weekend mostly of prairies in a dry year. After 775 miles of driving, no bog adder’s mouth, no pleated gentian, no velvety goldenrod. But this year we’ve managed to check many other flowers off of our wish list, and we are already starting next year’s wish list. Even in a year of drought, as wildflower chasers we live in hope.