A Breathtaking Blowout of Violets

May 2, 2021

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

Minnesota winters are long.  Minnesota springs might burst upon us or hesitate, teasingly, snowing one day, then warming the next. Flower chasers know to make the most of the time they have to seek out spring’s native wildflowers, which always seem to bloom briefly.

On the first Sunday in May, the breeze cool, the sky overcast, the air hinting of rain, we went to Grey Cloud Dunes hoping we were neither too early nor too late to see the birdfoot violets blooming in a sand blowout along the top of the dunes.

Grey Cloud Dunes Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) near Cottage Grove reaches from bluff tops that were once the banks of Glacial River Warren down to the Mississippi River. From the trail along the top of the bluff the trees below were a quilt of every conceivable shade of green.  Pelicans sailed in formation above the river.

We followed a sandy trail down and up through the sweet scent of bushes whose name we do not know but that surprise us every spring when they permeate the air. Pollinators buzzed in the heady-smelling flowers, and birdsong punctuated the sky. A quick check down a side trail revealed the few pasqueflowers we had seen earlier this year, done blooming but still beautiful with their feathery seeds.

Leafy artemisia leaves abounded, and at least one of Minnesota’s six kinds of pussytoes bloomed (we are still learning to tell them apart). We passed delicate purple flowers of ground plum and just-opening prairie smoke blossoms, deep pink against last year’s dried grasses.  Wind swayed the prairie grasses. Large beardtongue’s distinctive leaves cropped up along the path, a promise of flowers to come.

Then we came to the violets. 

In a blowout scooped on both sides of the trail, an explosion of delicate purple flowers from pale blues to vivid purples spread across the sand. Each flower had a small yellow “beak” at the center, one way we can tell birdfoot violets from the similar-looking prairie violet, which has a hairy “beard” at the center. The flowers spread beyond the blowout and up into last year’s prairie grasses, and we swore we were seeing more of them than we saw last year.  

We were not too early. We were not too late. We had come at just the right time for this spectacular springtime display, and we lingered, knowing that because of our busy lives we might not see them again until next spring. 

When we finally returned to the car, which was parked by the Hadley Avenue entrance to the SNA, we decided to investigate the other entrance to the SNA off 110th Street. Here we found a well-walked path that led us easily to the same blowout bursting with violets. No matter which direction we came from, these birdfoot violets took our breath away.

Two sightings (from different directions!) of birdfoot violets blooming in abundance under a wide prairie sky–the kind of day wildflower chasers dream of.

Return to Rustic Road

April 29, 2021

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

So many wildflowers, so many different places to visit when native spring flowers bloom so briefly! But some places are worth another visit, and another, and another as a succession of flowers blossoms, each in its own time.


A few weeks ago we visited a Wisconsin rustic road where almost every spring wildflower we’ve ever seen grows on steep hillsides along a dirt road.  The hillsides are posted no trespassing, but from the road we can still see all sorts of flowers.  We came to check on twinleaf, a species of special concern both in Minnesota and also in Wisconsin, whose flower opens for such a short time it’s easy to miss it.  We’d seen the leaves here in previous years as well as flowers that had been bitten by a late snow, and earlier this year we’d identified what we thought might be the first tentative twinleaf shoots.  This visit the shoots were taller, but we’ll need to come back next week to try to catch the elusive flower.  Do we mind a return trip?  Not at all.

Squirrel corn, another hard-to-find flower, was in full bloom, and a fat bumblebee zoomed from squirrel corn flower to squirrel corn flower, ignoring all other kinds of flowers, even the closely related Dutchman’s breeches. Squirrel corn and Dutchman’s breeches bloom at almost the same time, and both grow in the same habitat although hardly ever close enough to each other to make possible a photo comparing the two (we did finally find two plants keeping close company).

Large-flowered trillium were ready to burst out of their buds, large-flowered bellwort was opening its graceful yellow petals, and spring beauty still blossomed pink.  Yellow trout lilies and white trout lilies nodded, wild blue phlox flowers were just beginning to show their colors, wild ginger leaves hid dark red blossoms, and white cutleaf toothwort was in full bloom, the prettiest we’ve ever seen it.  

Mayapples bullied their way out of the ground like the noses of sun-seeking missiles, some of them already unfolding their umbrellas of leathery looking leaves. Only Mayapple plants with two leaf stalks will have flowers (one-leaf plants are sterile), and beneath a two-leaved plant we found a tiny bud, a promise of flowers to come.

The day was warm but breezy, the tops of tall trees were leafing out in vivid green, and slanting sun dappled the forest floor. Although we didn’t catch twinleaf blooming yet, we were glad to have a reason to return another time. Who knows what else we will see along this amazing stretch of native woods and wildflowers the next time, or the next time, or the next? 

A Walk in Wood-Rill Woods

April 24, 2021

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

Barely half an hour west of the Twin Cities near Long Lake, Minnesota, lie 141 acres of woodland with trees up to 400 years old.  Wood-Rill Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) is a piece of the Big Woods which once covered 5000 square miles of Minnesota. Like many other Big Woods remnants, native wildflowers bloom here in spring, and on a chilly, overcast day we set out to find them.

Several paths wind up and over the hills of this SNA (most SNAs are pathless), and along one of the trails we came across an explosion of yellow:  our first marsh marigolds of the year, blooming brightly in a wet area crossed by a wood plank.  Not far away we found another first of the year:  the first Jack-in-the-pulpit plants, from tiny shoots to ones where Jack had already appeared in the pulpit to ones where the leaves themselves, which follow the flowers and look very much like trillium leaves, were emerging.  We wandered among so many Jack-in-the-pulpit it felt like we should put our feet in our pockets, as my grandma used to say when we walked across her freshly washed floors, so as not to step on any small ones.

Marsh marigold and Jack-in-the-pulpit— two firsts of the year—delighted us, but as we wandered the paths we saw more and more spring flowers. The prize for abundance went to bloodroot—many done blooming but others still opening their white-petaled flowers and shawl-like leaves, often blooming in bunches like flowered skirts around the bases of trees.  

Both large-flowered Bellwort leaves and also sessile-leaved bellwort leaves were gracefully unfolding, and as the afternoon wore on and the sun claimed the sky several yellow large-flowered bellwort flowers drooped their blossoms down into the afternoon light. A few trilliums, both large-flowered and nodding, already had buds. 

Red columbine budded, Canadian wild ginger’s dark red flowers hid under their unfolding fuzzy leaves, two rue anemone bloomed pink, and one downy yellow violet showed bright against last year’s forest leaves.

A barred owl called who cooks for you who cooks for you, a woodpecker made its rattling way up a tree, and the late sun lit the high canopy of lacy new leaves so that they shone with their own yellow-green radiance against blue sky. A day that began chilly, breezy, and overcast turned into a splendid spring walk in woods close to home that we are glad to have found.