Northern Magic

July 22 and 23, 2022

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

The north shore of Lake Superior holds its own magic:  rugged rocks, wild waves, endless sky.  We love the grand sweep of lake and shore, but our first trip to the north shore this year was in search of smaller things, plants that have survived among the rocks and waves as well as other native plants we had yet to see. On our wish list: alpine bistort, encrusted saxifrage, small false asphodel, and auricled twayblade. Early on a Friday morning (but not too early for coffee) we met a wildflower friend in Grand Marais who had promised to guide us to out-of-the-way places. Did I mention we were excited?

First stop:  Icelandite Coastal Fen Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) north of Grand Marais.  A fen is essentially a peatland with a source of fresh water besides rainfall, such as runoff from higher ground or an upwelling spring. (In a bog, which is also a peatland, the only source of incoming water is rain or snowmelt.) In Icelandite Coastal Fen a rare orchid, auricled twayblade, grows. 

And we saw it! Saw them, actually, twenty or more plants, tucked under alders. Many were blooming, their pale petals seeming to glow, while some plants had just the two leaves that give twayblades their name. 

Beyond the alders in the open fen we found bog rosemary, small cranberry, hundreds of blooming pitcher plants,  and our second orchid of the day, Platanthera huronensis. (We aren’t botanists, but we finally memorized the scientific names for Platanthera huronensis and the similar-looking Platanthera aquilonis, since overlapping common names for them left us confused.)   

A short drive and hike along a river revealed our next orchid, a lesser purple fringed orchid just beginning to bloom.  Orchid count: 3.

Alongside the path into Horseshoe Bay Wildlife Management Area (WMA) large white flowers of thimbleberry and small, sweet flowers of northern bluebells were blooming.  By the rocky shore we found northern paintbrush, one of the flowers on our wish list for the weekend, as well as the sticky yellow leaves of common butterwort (which is actually uncommon in Minnesota). 

Next destination: Fall River Patterned Fen, northeastern Minnesota’s only patterned fen, made up of ridges (strings) and pools (flarks).  A one-mile hike down the Superior hiking trail took us to a likely entry into the fen through a lowland black spruce forest, and we stepped out into a world of immense silence. The moss in bogs and fens can absorb up to twenty times its weight in water, and it’s easy to believe it might absorb sounds as well.  

The ground squished at times, quivering underfoot and springing back up, making us grateful for the rubber boots we wore.  Bright, delicate blossoms of rose pogonia stood out, far too many to count, and countless purple pitcher plants raised their pinwheel blossoms. In the lower, wetter places we found both round-leaved and spoon-leaf sundew blooming.

But the prize of the day was club-spur orchid, which we’d only ever seen in Wisconsin.  Though nowhere near as numerous as the rose pogonia, plenty of club-spur orchids were blooming, enough to make our hearts glad. An unexpected find:  one tall ragged fringed orchid only slightly past its prime.  Orchid count: 6.

Storm clouds roiled above us, so we reluctantly began the trek back out of the fen, promising ourselves we’d return to this silent, mysterious habitat. Rain caught up with us under the black spruces, turning the air misty, white, and even more dreamlike.

Even after the thrill of the patterned fen, we still had two more stops. At an abandoned gravel pit we found more ragged fringed orchids, along with western spotted coralroot orchid and green pyrola, a new-to-us species. A glimpse of a Great Lakes gentian not yet blooming made this another place we’ll return to in a few weeks’ time.

Last stop of the day: Artist’s Point in Grand Marais, where we found alpine bistort in bloom near the leaves of common butterwort and bird’s-eye primrose. We dropped off our friend with many thanks and headed to the home of other friends where we were staying.  After a nine-orchid day and two new fens to fall in love with, we fell into bed, tired but filled with wildflower wonders.

The way home the next morning included a quick stop at Sugarloaf Cove to check on the status of Hudson Bay eyebright, an arctic disjunct that grows there far south of its usual habitat.  We found the tiny, tiny plants, less than an inch tall, growing in cracks of the rocks.  A non-native similar species, Tartary eyebright, is a threat to these native plants, but at Sugarloaf, at least, we saw no sign of it.  We did see another Platanthera huronensis, which made us happy.

Our last stop of the weekend:  Virginia, Minnesota, where on the overburden,  piled-up earth left from open-pit iron mining, a new kind of habitat grows on the reddish earth and rocks.  A scrabbling scramble up a hillside of tumbled rock brought us to the top of the overburden, where last year we saw Case’s ladies’-tresses blooming.  It’s early for Case’s yet this year, only their green leaves showing, but the spiraling white blossoms of northern slender ladies’-tresses stood out in the rainy light, their stems so slight that the best way to spot them was from a ground’s eye view .

Still on our hope-to-see list for another trip north:  encrusted saxifrage, small false asphodel, hooded ladies’ tresses, Great Lakes gentian–other flowers for other searches.  For now we’re grateful for a nine-orchid weekend with two new-to-us fens, for friends who share their wildflower knowledge, and for friends who open their home to us when we are wildflower chasing.  And we are grateful most of all for the folks who know and protect these wild places full of strange and wondrous flowers.

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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