After the Fire

June 12, 2023

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

When we drive toward Yellow Bank Hills  Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) we always watch for the curve of hill against sky–sometimes green with new spring growth, sometimes brown with late summer grasses.  Monday what we saw was a black silhouette across the horizon.  Clearly part of the prairie had been burned since we’d visited last fall, and, from the lingering smell of smoke, burned recently. Fire is an integral part of prairie life, and after our first startled view of the blackened hills we were glad to know that old, dried grasses and invasive shrubs had been cleared away by a managed burn.

We wandered the unburned part past greening grasses, yellow sundrops, wispy prairie smoke gone to seed, and a glorious explosion of prairie roses. Then we headed for the blackened ground, ash stirring under our feet as we climbed to the top of the hill and our favorite gravelly blowout.  Glacial erratic rocks stood out starkly, deep holes marked burrows, and what looked like a tiny volcanic crater was alive with ants.

A few grasses grew in the ashes, but it wasn’t until we reached the top that we found a scattering of almost unburned patches where milkvetch plants with fat pale seed pods had escaped the flames and curly green milkweed leaves were even curlier than usual, thanks to the fire’s heat. We promised ourselves to come back throughout the summer to watch the prairie return after fire.

Mound Spring Prairie SNA wasn’t far away, and as we drove toward it we joked about how we might find that it, too, had been burned.  A few weeks previously we’d visited Frenchman’s Bluff SNA and found large swaths of it black from burning. Perhaps the western prairies were  being renewed by managed burns  one by one?

Perhaps they are. Whatever the reason, what looked like half of Mound Spring Prairie’s undulating hills in the southern unit had been recently burned.  Once again we walked through the unburned section identifying false gromwell, leadplant, Lambert’s locoweed, prairie alum root, and the occasional bright puccoon.  

We had hoped to find scarlet gaura in one of these dry hill prairies, a plant whose four-petaled flowers open white early in the morning, then gradually turn deep pink before withering away.  Just as we commented that it was too late in the day to catch the flowers changing color, we looked down.  There at our feet scarlet gaura bloomed. Several flowers high on the stem were still white while lower flowers were shading deeper into pink. Celebration and photos ensued.

On the western edge of the state, prairies have been burned so that new life can grow, and we’ve seen scarlet gaura flowering.  A very good prairie day.

See MORE of what we are seeing now!

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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