Rare Days

July 1,2 and 3, 2022

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

Usually over a long summer weekend we head north to look for wildflowers.  This year, however, we both needed to stay closer to home, so we planned a day trip to look for a flower we’ve been chasing for years:  the state-threatened prairie milkweed. We’d seen it blooming last year down in Iowa at Hayden Prairie, and although it’s listed as still growing at a single site in Minnesota (unlike purple milkweed, which is also listed in Minnesota but hasn’t been seen here for at least 125 years), we hadn’t been able to track prairie milkweed down.

We read that it grows in Mower County, so we headed south from the Twin Cities, stopping along the way to check on a place where, thanks to a friend, we’d previously seen sweet-smelling Indian plantain, which is listed as state endangered. We found the plantain not yet blooming but still growing strong, and at another stop, thanks to the same friend, we found wild sweet William (state special concern) just past full and lovely bloom. 

Our journey took us along one of our favorite rich-ditch roads where we’ve seen many roadside wildflowers. When we spotted the stalks of white wild indigo, a species of special concern in Minnesota, we stopped to explore and found rattlesnake master (state special concern) and wild quinine (state endangered) blooming along with other natives. Occasional bright orange wood lilies and magenta-colored prairie phlox punctuated the roadsides as we headed on to Lake Louise State Park in search of the shade-tolerant poke milkweed, which we found in almost-full bloom along a wooded road.

Arriving at the many-hundred-acres location where prairie milkweed is said to grow, we set out to search and found a prairie full of wild quinine, rattlesnake master, pale-spike lobelia, white wild indigo, and showy tick-trefoil that gave us hope that this time we might actually find prairie milkweed.

And in less than an hour of looking, we did!  First one plant, then several, then several more, until we stopped counting at fifty.  Jubilation ensued, along with a sense of wonder that we’d actually seen prairie milkweed here in Minnesota.

It’s hard to top a day like the one we’d been having, but we made one more stop at a place where we had just heard from a wildflower friend that more goat’s rue (state special concern) than we could imagine was blooming.  Even though the goat’s rue was already almost all bloomed out when we found it, we were glad see so many flowers—far too many to count even for someone who loves to count. Along the roadside butterflyweed and puccoon bloomed brightly, and we began to list which of Minnesota’s 13 milkweed species we’d seen so far that day: poke, prairie, common, and butterflyweed.

What hadn’t we seen yet, we wondered, and where might we still see it?  Suddenly we were on a new quest: to see as many Minnesota milkweeds as we could chase down.

Not far away was the goat prairie that holds Minnesota’s only known population of narrow-leaved milkweed (state endangered), and we couldn’t resist a climb to see if it was blooming yet. It was, and so were several nearby green milkweeds. Six milkweed species and counting—what if we made one more stop at an SNA almost on our way home where we’d once seen woolly milkweed, which is uncommon, and clasping milkweed (state-threatened) to add to our list?  

So of course we headed to the SNA, where we found no sign of woolly milkweed and only the wavy leaves of clasping milkweed long, long past its prime.  Still, we counted the clasping as seen if not blooming, and, although the call of more milkweed-searching was strong, evening was coming on, so we headed home.  After all, we had three more days of the long weekend for our milkweed quest.

The next day we were treated to a tour of Uncas Dunes SNA by its site steward, where we saw creeping juniper (state special concern) just down the road from the SNA, and in the SNA itself a wealth of oak savannah and sedge meadow plants and flowers, including June grass, large- flowered penstemon gone to seed, silky prairie clover, bearberry, small-leaved pussytoes (state special concern), racemed milkwort, tubercled rein orchid (state threatened), and yet another milkweed to add to our list:  oval-leaf milkweed.

Full up with flower chasing, we drove home wondering where we could manage to see the rest of Minnesota’s milkweeds:  showy, swamp, Sullivant’s (state threatened), and whorled.  Our best chance, we agreed, was Schaefer Prairie, where on a past visit we’d once seen all four species blooming at the same time.  

Sunday morning early we pointed the car west toward Schaefer Prairie where, eventually, we came across the three “S” milkweeds we were searching for—Sullivant’s showy, swamp–along with butterflyweed and common milkweed, some in bud, some in bloom.  All that remained to be seen was whorled milkweed, of which we found no sign at Schaefer.

Consulting our lengthy list of flowers seen in past searches, we decided our best chance for whorled milkweed was Lost Valley Prairie SNA, where Hill’s thistle, another flower we’ve wanted to see in bloom, grew.  Lost Valley didn’t disappoint: we found one Hill’s thistle blooming beautifully and two whorled milkweed in full flower.

Final milkweed count for the weekend:  12
Blooming or in bud: common, Sullivant’s, swamp, whorled, prairie, narrow-leaved, green, poke, showy and butterfly weed.
Past bloom: oval-leaf, clasping
Not seen: woolly

Author: kellypovo

Kelly Povo, a professional photographer for over thirty years, has exhibited in galleries and art shows across the country. Her cards, gift books, and calendars have been sold internationally. She and Phyllis Root have collaborated on several books. This is her first book on Minnesota's Native Wildflowers.

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