September 18, 2022
Even in mid-September there’s plenty of flower-chasing yet to do. On a partly overcast Sunday morning we set out to see if we could chase down one of Minnesota’s last orchids of the year to bloom, Great Plains ladies’-tresses, whose small white flowers spiral around a stem. Great Plains ladies’-tresses looks similar to nodding ladies’-tresses, but one way to distinguish between the two is by their smell: Great Plains ladies’-tresses, according to one guide book, smells like almonds. Another way to tell the difference is by their habitat. Great Plains ladies’-tresses is one of only three Minnesota orchids specific to prairie, along with western prairie fringed orchid and small white lady’s-slipper. We hoped to find the orchids in a goat prairie at King’s and Queen’s Bluff Scientific and Natural Area (SNA), where they are listed as growing. The SNA is part of Great River Bluffs State Park, so we headed southeast through early light that silvered the waters of the Mississippi River and Lake Pepin.
The entrance into the park passed through prairie colored yellow with goldenrod and purple and white with asters. We’ve been trying to learn all the goldenrods in the state (Minnesota Wildflowers lists 18 of them), and we’d gotten up to four we were pretty sure we could recognize and one more we were absolutely sure of– upland white goldenrod, the only white goldenrod in the state.) We stopped along the prairie drive and figured out another: the bright plumes of showy goldenrod.
And on those showy goldenrods a surprise –hundreds of monarch butterflies, orange and black wings dark against the golden flowers. We ventured into the prairie a bit, careful not to disturb the feeding monarchs, and discovered another surprise, a multitude of cream gentian still blooming. Many flowers were beginning to brown, but some were still a pale yellow, their blossoms like little bunched bouquets. Already the day was a delight. What would the goat prairie hold?
The path to the goat prairie led through woods, where we identified another goldenrod, elm-leaved goldenrod whose shape makes us think of fountains or fireworks. Reddish-brown berries of Solomon’s seal and vivid red clusters of Jack-in-the-pulpit seeds brightened the forest floor, and ghost pipe gleamed palely under white pines. The goat prairie, when we came to it on one side of the path, was true to its name: a hillside that fell away so steeply you needed to be as sure-footed as a goat to traverse it. Here, too, goldenrod and aster bloomed, and monarchs flitted among them.
We kept to the path, which ended in a stunning overlook of the Mississippi river and surrounding bluffs. There, in the short prairie grasses next to the path, we found Great Plains ladies’-tresses, freshly opened flowers curving in bright white spires. When I knelt down to smell one, the flowers really did smell sweetly of almonds.
Whenever we’re out flower chasing, it’s hard to quit after just one place, and since one of our favorite SNAs, Mound Prairie, wasn’t far away, we decided to check it out. Mound Prairie SNA is made up of three goat prairies rising above the surrounding countryside, and here, too, we discovered Great Plains ladies’-tresses in bloom along with asters, goldenrod, and a few last brightly yellow partridge pea flowers.
Not much farther down the highway Magelssen Park towers above Rushford, so we decided to stop there, too, to see if we could find cliff goldenrod among the rocks. No cliff goldenrod to be seen (that we could identify, anyway), but even more Great Plains ladies’-tresses welcomed us in the brown and yellow grasses of a remnant goat prairie.
With plenty of daylight left, and with Pin Oak Prairie SNA almost on our way home, why not make one last stop to see what else might be blooming or gone to glorious seed? The reason why not became evident as soon as we turned down the road toward Pin Oak Prairie SNA and discovered that the bridge across a little river was under construction. With no other easy route to reach the SNA, we decided maybe it really was time to head home. So we did. We’ll be going out again to look for more fall flowers and seeds, but in a year when we’ve finally managed to see all of the possible orchids in Minnesota, ending our orchid year with a hat trick of Great Plains ladies’-tresses felt, well, as sweet as the smell of almonds.