September 25, 2022
Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo
Even before reaching the top of the hills at Yellow Bank Hills Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) at the far western edge of the state we are blasted by wind. Wind bends the yellowing grasses into waves and tosses the field sagewort into a crazy dance party. Wind frosts whitecaps on the lake on the western edge of the SNA. Dry grasses crunch underfoot, but the sound is almost drowned by the wind.
It’s a gorgeous day to be out on the prairie.
We’ve come here to try to track down velvety goldenrod (solidago mollis), a state special concern flower, listed as growing at this SNA in a small population at the very eastern edge of its range. This fall we’ve been on the hunt for all of Minnesota’s eighteen goldenrods, which for years we’ve just clumped together as “Yep, that’s a solidago.” Now we’re determined to sort them out in all their golden glory, and what better time of year than September? We’ve already identified roughly half of the goldenrods, and a stop at Cedar Rock SNA on our way west has netted us Riddell’s goldenrod (solidago riddelli) with its long, narrow, beautifully arching leaves, past its prime but still clearly a Riddell’s. We’ve been to Yellow Bank Hills before in search of velvety goldenrod with no luck; this time we plan to search every bit of the SNA’s 78 acres or get swept away by the wind, whichever comes first.
Hills roll across the southern part of the SNA. Here and there a glacial erratic rock glitters beneath a covering of grey-green lichen. Flowers are mostly gone to seed, with a few purple and white asters still blooming along with the bright yellow of an occasional hairy false goldenaster. Goldenrods are scattered around the southern end of the SNA, but none of them fits the clues for which we’re searching. We have plenty of clues: velvety goldenrod is short (6”-24”), is said to have has ovoid or blunt grey-green leaves, has usually lost its basal leaves by bloom time, and has dense hairs on its leaves and stem which have a velvety feel. Now all we need is a goldenrod that has read the same guidebooks we have.
Having scoured the southern end, we wander into the northern end, where seemingly endless goldenrods, many past prime, grow in the lower, moister areas. Gauging height can be a challenge, since we frequently have to lift a wind-flattened goldenrod to see how tall it is. We lift. We peer for blunt or ovoid grey-green stem leaves. We feel for velvety surfaces. All the while the wind whips our hair, pausing now and then as if to inhale, then blasting away again. Wind is an integral part of prairie, but this feels like more wind than we’ve ever encountered before while flower chasing.
After what seem like thousands and thousands of goldenrod perusals, we are almost on our way back to the car when we come upon a small population of goldenrods that looks just a little different from all the ones we’ve seen so far. These plants are short, have grey-green leaves (although the tips look more pointed than blunt), and have softly hairy stems. Could this possibly be velvety goldenrod?
We have recently fallen in love (or at least serious like) with a cell phone app that gives its best guess at plants about which we are uncertain. The app is sometimes right, sometimes not, sometimes so vague as to be unhelpful, but this time it confirms that we are looking at velvety goldenrod. We’re still not completely convinced, but I take notes and GPS coordinates so we can return to this spot next year when the flowers are in full bloom. Kelly takes photographs.
A windy and sunny prairie is hard for photography, but I hold tightly to the sun diffuser screen (so it–and I– don’t blow away) and shade the plant while Kelly waits to click pictures when the wind to pauses. Then, hopeful that we might have added another goldenrod to our growing list of ones we recognize, we head for the car and the long drive home.
Flowerchasing season is short, goldenrod season even shorter. If we don’t find all eighteen goldenrods this year, there’s always next year, but finding what we think is velvety goldenrod makes us hopeful that we might, someday, find them all.