Leaf Looking

November 1, 2020

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

Just when we think the wildflower season is over, another glorious day comes along–a bit windy, a little brisk (read: freezing), but with brilliant blue sky through leafless branches. Who could resist a trip to look for one last sign of wildflowers?

On the first of November we bundle up and drive to Mary Schmidt Crawford Woods Scientific and Natural Area (SNA), a 120-acre Big Woods remnant, to look for putty-root orchid leaves. The orchid itself blooms in May and June, but the leaves wither and disappear as the flower stalk begins to grow, while new leaves appear in the fall and overwinter. Finding those autumn leaves is a good way to mark where to look for the flowers in springtime.

We’d been given some advice from an expert about where to search in this SNA: along the side of the trail into the woods, where, as a bonus, we might also see autumn coral root done blooming. But when we arrive at the woods, the whole open forest floor is covered in leaves. Trail? What trail? Where?

So we do what we often do—we wander. Hepatica leaves, which will persist until spring, stand out on the forest floor. We find an odd-looking flower gone to seed that looks like something you’d hang on a Christmas tree, a small sphere of radiating spokes with tiny iridescent blue balls at the tips. Perhaps a sarsaparilla flower? A few spots smell suspiciously of skunk, and always the leaves rustle underfoot.

And then, among all the brown leaves on the ground, Kelly spots some still-green ones, crinkly and beautifully striped with white veins: putty-root orchid leaves. And then I find some, and then we find more. And still more. We’re beside ourselves with delight.

Autumn coral root? We never do see that, but we’ll look again when we come back next year to see putty-root and other spring flowers, and we’ll come earlier in the fall to search for autumn coral root blooming. For today we’re almost giddy to be out in the woods and sunshine, to forget for a while the stress of the wider world, and to find what we’d come to see: putty-root leaves.

For the first of November (or for any time) it is a splendid wildflower day.

P.S. Back home, a search reveals that we did indeed see wild sarsaparilla gone to seed, a new sight for us. The world is full of surprises.

A Seedy Savanna

October 17, 2020

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

Even though snow whitened the ground this past week before thoughtfully melting away, even though almost all native wildflowers have long gone to seed, we couldn’t resist another trip up to Helen Allison Savanna Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) to see the oak trees in their red and umber glory.  Autumn color is drifting down, but the oaks, which seem to hang on to their leaves longer, didn’t disappoint. Even with heavy cloud cover they glowed.  

We’ve been to Helen Allison SNA in the summer, but now we identified what plants we could by their distinctive seeds.  Large-flowered beardtongue’s brown seed pods pointed upward in clusters, while spotted beebalm’s seed heads looked like fat beads stacked on a stalk.  Poufs of white thimbleweed seed speckled the landscape, and sweet everlasting’s seed clusters looked at though clouds had landed on the ground. 

It was clear, now that we weren’t distracted by blooming flowers, that in this part of the SNA the oaks mostly grew down in the blowouts.  In the sand around one blowout we found clusters of some kind of fungi like villages of tiny round huts the color of oak leaves, and the earthstar fungi scattered around looked little bone colored stars. In the smaller swales patches of a starry-looking green moss felt soft and deep.

The sky clouded up even more, hinting at snow, and snow will come soon enough, we know. For today, though, no snow fell, and we had one more chance to visit a wild place to help see us through the coming winter. 

Prairie Hopping Day Four

September 21, 2020

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

We would love to keep on wildflower-chasing until the last wildflower goes to seed, but this is our final morning of the trip. Yesterday’s wind has died down (perhaps the weather forecast meant 3 a.m. instead of 3 p.m.?), and we have two more prairies to check out on our way homeward.

At Blanketflower Prairie Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) we are looking for its namesake now that we know what to look for. The trees and hills burn with fall colors in the morning light, and we wade through more grasses, asters, goldenrods, and blazing star going to seed, scanning for blanketflower. Down one hill, halfway up another, and there they are gazing down at us, more dark, spiky seed heads than we can count. As we come over the top of this second hill, we look down on yet more blanketflower in seed. Definitely a place we will return to.

Time presses, so we stop briefly at Richard M. and Mathilde Rice Elliot SNA which,according to the DNR, is almost 500 acres of high quality native prairie remnant. We’re still hopeful for pleated gentian, which is listed as growing here, and we decide our best chance is to walk along the edge of the prairie next to a promising ditch. We find bottle gentian but no pleated gentian. We also discover, almost hidden in the grass, the dried leaves and stem and seed pod of a plant that is almost surely an orchid. The SNA list of wildflowers for this site includes small white lady’s-slipper, and even though the stem and leaves look large for a small white lady’s-slipper, we take a gps coordinate and add this spot to our list of next year’s must-return-to places.

Moss grows in part of the ditch we’re following, and here we look especially closely because this seems to us like some sort of micro-habitat. A tiny bright blue flower turns out to be a lesser fringed gentian, less than six inches tall, and closer searching reveals more lesser fringed gentian gone to seed. An even tinier blue flower we identify as a Kalm’s lobelia–two new to us flowers. We add this ditch to our list of rich ditches and other roadside wonders.

We both feel more and more despondent as we head homeward. We’ve been socially distant not only from people but also from news which grows more and more dire every day. It’s hard to leave prairie hopping in the rear view mirror, but there is other important work we need to do: our jobs are waiting, a crucial election looms, and there are protests for racial justice we need to go to.

We have had four splendid days among the wildflowers, and we’re grateful. It’s time for other work. We drive on home.