October 1, 2022
Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo
The trees are beginning to burn with color, mornings are cooler, the days shorter, the air crisper. Even though prairies no longer burst with summer flowers, fall, too is fine prairie time. So on a day of cloud-streaked blue sky we head off to Oronoco Prairie Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) to see what we can find.
Grasses are what we notice first: big bluestem, little bluestem, hairy grama, sideoats grama, prairie dropseed looking like a yellow-green fountain of grass, Canada wild rye bending in the breeze. Fall-blooming heath asters and silky asters dot the grasses.
And down in the grasses a blue surprise: downy gentian and stiff gentian, both in bright and beautiful bloom.
Goldenrods, some gone to seed and some still in flower, offer us a chance to identify two more species—Great Plains goldenrod (euthamia gymnospermoides) and tall goldenrod (solidago altissima)—in our search to learn all eighteen of Minnesota’s goldenrods.
Most other flowers have gone to seed, but even the seeds fascinate. Whorled milkweed pods not yet open point upward like candles. Butterflyweed pods release their silky strands, shimmeringly white in the sun. Rattlesnake master (a species of special concern in Minnesota at the northern edge of its range and one of six rare plants to grow here) shows its spiky brown seed heads, and the dark reddish-brown seed capsules of Great St. Johnswort open like dry petals.
Wandering along paths with the scent of mowed grass underfoot, we investigate a hill prairie we haven’t climbed before and find cylindric blazing star and rough blazing star gone to fuzzy, fluffy seed. A plant with bright orange round fruit turns out to be late horse gentian, although it belongs to a different genus than the blue gentians we are seeing.
It’s a splendid day to be out exploring this dry bedrock bluff prairie. As we walk back toward the car we are already planning an earlier trip next year to catch some of these flowers in full bloom. But for now we’re content with flowers gone to seed, goldenrods, gentians, grasses, and a wide prairie sky.