June 17, 2022
We’ve had an interesting time figuring our flower chasing this year. Spring came late, then all in a rush, then stalled out, then seemed to creep. This year we also decided to focus on seeing specific flowers in specific places at specific times, which means synchronizing both our busy schedules (work, teaching, library visits, a botany class on Isle Royale, a daughter’s upcoming wedding, visits with grandchildren) with the flowers themselves. Still, we’ve managed to check at least one flower –squirrel corn blooming in Minnesota–off of our must-see list. Two of the flowers still on the list: blanketflower and ball cactus in bloom.
So when we heard that blanketflower was blooming now at Blanket Flower Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) and that ball cactus, which grows in only a tiny part of western Minnesota, was close to blooming, we mapped out a one-day circle tour to check on both of these flowers and a few others as well.
At Blanket Flower Prairie SNA we climbed a hill under a cloudless sky past hoary puccoon, prairie smoke gone to delicate and drifty seed, yellow sundrop, and smooth pussytoe. Near the hilltop, just as we’d been told, we spied our first blooming blanketflower, bright as sunrise on a stalk. Jubilation ensued. More clumps of blanketflower blooming, more jubilation. We wandered happily among glacial erratics identifying green milkweed in bud, prairie rose, wood betony gone to seed, prairie alum root, veiny pea, and slender beardtongue.
Next stop: a nearby SNA that listed small white lady’s-slipper, a flower we thought we’d missed this year. We’d been told, though, that some were still blooming at Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge, so we headed into the SNA with hope high in our hearts. Small white lady’s-slipper is one of Minnesota’s three prairie orchids (along with great plains ladies’ tresses and western prairie fringed orchid), so we weren’t surprised that it might be growing in a western prairie. But we were surprised at how the dried grass of the SNA crunched underfoot, since we usually see the small whites only in wetter prairies. We were even more surprised to look down as we wandered and see two small white lady’s-slippers blooming, then several more nearby that were mostly bloomed out—then more and more and more, so many that we finally gave up counting and simply estimated several hundred plants, most already gone to seed, some of which hadn’t bloomed at all this year. Next year we’ll try to come earlier to see more of them in bloom, but this year we’re just grateful that we didn’t miss seeing them completely.
The day was already leaning into afternoon, and we had many miles yet to go, so we regretfully drove past Yellow Bank Hills SNA and on to Bonanza Prairie SNA where we hoped to find slender milkvetch, a flower of special concern, and scarlet gaura, an uncommon plant here whose flowers look at though the bottom petals are missing. Both flowers are at the eastern edge of their range in Minnesota.
Sumac and tall grasses covered Bonanza Prairie’s lower slopes, but the sparser hilltops looked promising, so once again we climbed, this time past daisy fleabane, false gromwell, silky prairie clover, and prairie turnip leaves. Barely five minutes’ worth of climbing brought us to our first of several scarlet gaura plants, the blossoms, which wither throughout the day, already small and fading but still a vivid pink. No milkvetch, but on the way back to the car we did spot a curly green milkweed plant in bud.
Again we drove on, headed at last for Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge and the now-legendary (at least to us) ball cactus. Would it be blooming?
Not yet. But the pink-tinged buds promised splendor in the coming days, and the many brittle prickly pear cactus were covered with yellow buds, another future glory. We’ve lost count of how many times we’ve crossed the state to try to see ball cactus in bloom, but we’ll come again very soon—and this time we’re sure it will be blooming. As a bonus, we found a few tiny rough-seeded fameflowers, a Minnesota state-threatened plant, among the rocks. The plant’s flowers open briefly in full sunshine in late afternoon, and while we had plenty of sun to coax them open, the afternoon must not have been quite late enough for them yet.
Another time we might have waited patiently for the flowers to bloom, but we had one more stop on our circle tour and then many more miles before home. Another flower we’ve tried for several years to see blooming is red saltwort, mainly known at Minnesota’s only salt lake a few miles farther down the road. Not only did the flower still elude us, but the lake level was so high we couldn’t even see any plants and guessed they must all be underwater.
Tired but happy we turned toward home after a long day of blooming blanketflowers, small white lady’s slippers, budding ball cactus, sunshine, and the gift of time outdoors doing something we love: chasing Minnesota’s native wildflowers.