Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo
May 21, 2023
The haze from Canadian wildfires turned the sunrise vivid as we headed out for a day of wildflower chasing. First stop: Oronoco Prairie Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) where part of the prairie had been burned since our last visit, leaving the ground clear for thousands of rattlesnake master to make their pointy appearance. Grasses shimmered with dew, hoary puccoon bloomed yellow-orange, prairie violet punctuated the new green, and lousewort spun its spirals of yellow petals.
We hiked past the burned-over hillside and across to the unburned side where we hoped to find a horse gentian we’d seen last fall. Could we find the plant again, we wondered. Would it be blooming?
Minnesota has two kinds of horse gentian, early and late, that are actually members of the honeysuckle family. Both kinds grow two to four feet tall in similar habitats, both have pairs of opposite leaves, and both bloom in May and June with clusters of purplish brown flowers in the axils where leaf and stem meet. Early horse gentian’s flowers ripen into red fruit while late horse gentian’s fruit is yellow, but without fruit the best way we know to tell them apart is the leaves. Early horse gentian’s leaves connect to the stem but not to each other, while late horse gentian’s leaves join together to encircle the stem as though the stem is growing right through them.
We found the plant we’d seen last fall easily, and a look at the leaves told us it was late horse gentian. And yes, there were flowers, tiny bits of color tucked into the leaf axils, just opening their dark velvety petals.
By the time we arrived at Kellogg Weaver Dunes SNA the sun burnt down, heat radiated up, and the ground crunched underfoot. How, we wondered, could anything grow in such dryness?
But grow it did. Bird’s foot violet bloomed, bunches of blue-eyed grass blossomed like little bouquets, more puccoon (hairy this time) shined yellow, and starry false Solomon’s seal’s feathery white flowers perched at the top of gracefully opening leaves.
We had come to search for bearberry, a ground-hugging shrub with small pinkish flowers. We’d first seen bearberry up north in Badoura Jack Pine Woodland SNA last summer and were doubtful we’d find it in southern Minnesota dunes, but we set off faithfully following coordinates we’d found of a sighting. The farther we trekked up and down across sandy blowouts, though, the more we thought, “No way these coordinates are right.”
And yet they were.
On the far side on a sandy blowout, nestled in among springtime-red poison ivy leaves, a population of bearberry hugged the ground, not yet blooming but definitely in bud. The bearberry wasn’t the only surprise: we also came across two blowouts full of beach heather with a few tiny yellow flowers scattered among the small leaves. Near the road where we’d parked we found a plethora of Carolina anemone leaves and one white flower blooming.
What had looked at first like an almost barren landscape turned out to have an abundance of native wildflowers, some blooming, some already done blooming, and many more in bud with a promise of flowers to come. A place to delight sunburned wildflower chasers.
In the wildlife management area across the road sandhill cranes called.
It was time to head home.
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