Gentians on our Minds

January 21, 2023

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

On a cold and snowy winter day, when native wildflowers have gone to sleep or to seed, we have gentians on our minds, those late summer bloomers with a color so lovely and deep it has its own name: gentian blue. (There’s also a gentian blue sports car color, but, trust us, the flower came first.)

Not all gentians that go by the common name “gentian” are blue.  One gentian flower is creamy yellow, one is green, and two of the flowers with the common name gentian (early and late horse gentian, which we have yet to see blooming) are not only not blue but actually belong to a different botanical family. 

The first four gentians we saw when we began chasing wildflowers were definitely blue—bottle, stiff, downy, and greater fringed gentian. They were also relatively easy to find, although we did mistake a greater fringed gentian for a lesser one, since both are small with similar flowers. But lesser fringed gentian, when we finally identified it at Roscoe Scientific and Natural Area (SNA), turned out to be shorter and have slightly smaller leaves and shorter fringe on its petals. (Hint:  it also helped that lesser fringed gentian was the only one listed at that SNA.)  

Bottle gentian is Minnesota’s most common gentian, the brilliant blue of the closed blossoms in the grasses of late summer like overlooked Easter eggs.  I’d read that bumblebees were the only pollinators big enough to fight their way into bottle gentians and that they often left their rear legs and bumblebee bottom sticking out so that they didn’t get trapped inside the tightly closed petals.  Once, in Iron Horse Prairie SNA, I actually saw a bumblebee bottom protruding from a bottle gentian.  The bumblebee backed out and flew on before we could snap a photo, but I know what I saw, and it made me laugh out loud. You don’t even have to go to the prairie (although we love and highly recommend a prairie for so many reasons) to watch a bumblebee fight its way in and back out of bottle gentian flowers. You can watch one HERE.

Stiff gentian and greater fringed gentian grow at Iron Horse Prairie SNA, too, and we found downy gentian’s graceful blossoms at Oronoco Prairie SNA.  It was years more before we tracked down the other blue members of the family: lesser fringed gentian in a ditch, Great Lakes gentian in a bog, and pleated gentian in a saline prairie.  We spotted American spurred gentian with its fat green pointy flowers in several forests, saw an abundance of yellow gentian along highway 56 in Mower County, and identified late horse gentian’s bright orange fruits at Oronoco Prairie SNA one September afternoon.  (Hint:  the plant looks nothing like the other gentians to our untrained eye, and we would have passed it by if we hadn’t spotted the fruits). Now that we’ve seen late horse gentian’s vivid contribution to the fall prairie, we’re determined to revisit late horse gentian in bloom and also track down its near relative, early horse gentian.  

As for the native blue gentians (and the one creamy yellow gentian), we are always grateful to see their deep and lovely flowers gracing Minnesota’s wilder places.  Who needs a sports car painted gentian blue when we can find true gentian blue for free? See more information about Minnesota’s gentians HERE.

A Bounty of Berries

December 2022

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

Berries, berries, berries!  It’s what some flowers ripen into in order to make more flowers. 

We especially noticed berries this past fall at Badoura Jack Pine Woodland Scientific and Natural Area (SNA).  Most flowers were already bloomed out, but berries were plentiful—blueberry, bearberry, eastern teaberry (also known as wintergreen), snowberry –all thrive in the sandy soil under the open canopy of jack pines.  We’ve also seen both large and small cranberry this past year, the large cranberries in a bog and the small cranberries growing abundantly along a trail in the Superior National Forest.  

What exactly is a berry? We got as far as learning that all berries are fruit but not all fruit are berries before getting lost among pomes, stones, and aggregates. So we decided that for the purpose of this blog (and definitely unscientifically), berries are native fruit found in the wild with “berry” in their name.

Here are some of the berries we’ve seen in Minnesota this past year.

Two kinds of blueberry, lowbush and velvet-leaf, grow in Minnesota, both with delicate bell-like flowers that ripen into tasty fruit.  Blueberries are widespread in northern forests and especially abundant following a fire. A word of warning: it’s best not to fill your hat with blueberries, then, as you hurry not to be left behind by fellow canoeists, clap your hat onto your head, resulting in a net loss of delicious fruit. Trust me.  I know.

Minnesota also has three kinds of edible cranberry, and we’ve seen the two low-growing ones in bogs and swamps.   Both large cranberry and small cranberry ripen richly red and tartly tasty. Large cranberries, especially, gleam like fat red jewels on a rainy boggish day. 

Snowberry comes by its name honestly–small white flowers ripen into small white berries.

Bearberry flowers look like small, delicately pink bells.  They grow in dry, sandy, or rocky places over much of the northern half of the state and ripen into red berries. Bears are said to like them, but we can’t testify to this:  the only bear we’ve seen lately was in a hurry to cross a road in Wisconsin and not stopping to eat anything. Why was the bear crossing the road?  You know the answer.

The app on our phones identified a plant as eastern teaberry, but we’ve always known it as wintergreen when we’ve seen it in the north woods.  Its flowers, like other members of the heath family, are bell shaped, and the red fruit when it ripens stands out against the plant’s shiny green leaves.  

Bunchberry’s white blossoms, which are actually bracts (modified leaves) with tiny flowers in the center, ripen into bunches of red berries in the forests where it grows throughout much of the state. It’s not a member of the heath family like cranberry, blueberry, eastern teaberry, snowberry, and bearberry, but it is the world’s fastest plant.  When a pollinator or wind disturbs its flowers the pollen shoots out in half a millisecond.  Luckily for wildlife, the berries hold still.

Winter is here now, and the berries that haven’t been eaten will soon be buried berries, deep under snow. In the dark days before solstice, while we wait for the light to grow longer and next year’s wildflower season to grow nearer, we send you all a wish for joy, peace, an abundance of wildflowers…

…and a berry merry holiday.

Stalking the Wild Milkweeds

November 18, 2022

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

Some folks keep bird lists, some folks want to visit every state park or hike the entire Superior trail or sample every Minnesota craft beer. We wanted to see all of Minnesota’s milkweeds, and a couple of years ago, we set out to do just that.

Minnesota lists fourteen species of milkweed, but the list shrank almost immediately to thirteen when we read that purple milkweed hasn’t been documented here for the past 125 year. The first few of the other thirteen were easy. 

Common milkweed is, well, common and can be found across the state in yards, in prairies, alongside roads, in dry places, damp places, sunny places, partly shaded places, edges of lakes, edges of woods.  It happily spreads its silky seeds to grow in even more places.

Butterfly-weed’s bright orange-to-red flowers were also easy to spot, blooming like a beacon in prairies such as Butternut Valley Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) and Schaefer Prairie, a Nature Conservancy site. 

We found swamp milkweed in swamps (of course) and many other wet places, its flowers a deep purple pink. Like common milkweed, it seems pretty ubiquitous here in Minnesota—we’ve spotted it in Blaine Wetlands, Roscoe Prairie SNA, and along the trail to Lake Bronson SNA among many other damper places.

Whorled milkweed on the other hand, inhabits drier places in the southern and western parts of the state.  We’ve seen its delicate white flowers at Kellogg Weaver Dunes SNA, Rushford Sand Barrens SNA, and in Lost Valley SNA as well as Carlos Avery Wildlife Management Area (WMA).

After those first few, things got a little more challenging.

We found green milkweed up on River Terrace Prairie SNA, the plant’s narrow leaves fooling us into thinking we might have found a new population of narrow-leaved milkweed (we hadn’t). Since then we’ve seen green milkweed, both the kind with narrow leaves and the wavy-leaved kind, on lots of prairie hillsides, including Pine Bend Bluffs SNA, Kasota Prairie SNA, and Bonanza Prairie SNA.

The real state-endangered narrow-leaved milkweed is known in Minnesota only from goat prairies in the southeast part of the state.  We’re happy to scramble up steep hillsides to admire our tiny Minnesota population, even though it turns out going up a goat prairie is a lot easier than coming down, especially if you don’t want to descend in a tumbling rush. 

Oval-leaf milkweed first caught our eye along the steps to the beach at a cabin at Blue Lake, which makes sense since it seems to prefer sandy places.  Even though the plant wasn’t blooming, it was hard to mistake the distinctive milkweed leaves.  Since then we’ve also seen it, among other places, along the path to Fish Lake at Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve.  

Poke milkweed eluded us for years, until we started seeing it seemingly everywhere, along trails and wooded roadsides, so many poke milkweed we began to wonder if it was stalking us.  Both Lake Louise State Park and Mille Lacs State Park provided an abundance of sightings.

State-threatened Sullivant’s milkweed was a challenge, looking a lot like common milkweed.  Sullivant’s milkweed leaves are smoother than common milkweed’s, almost rubbery, but even rubbing a lot of leaves left us slightly confused. Rubbery? Sort of rubbery?  The real clue came when we realized that Sullivant’s milkweed leaves tend to point up more than common milkweed leaves.  (We still like to rub the leaves just for the feel of them.) It’s a plant mostly of less-disturbed prairies in southern Minnesota.

Although woolly milkweed isn’t considered rare, it turned out to be a challenge, perhaps because it’s small and nestles low in the grass on sandy oak savannas. We’ve only ever seen it once in southeast Minnesota—and even when we knew where to look it wasn’t easy to spot.

If wooly milkweed is small, state-threatened clasping milkweed is more of a stand-out in the same sandy savanna habitat with its long, mostly leafless stem with a flower cluster on top that made us of think of a cross between a vintage light fixture and an alien. 

The last two milkweed were the most challenging of all, although showy milkweed turned out to be so distinctive we could spot it along the roadside as we drove past at 65 miles an hour (or so) on highway 71. We’ve also seen it at Schaefer Prairie Nature Conservancy site, but for us it’s been mainly a “Stop the car! I think I saw a showy!” kind of flower.

Last (and of course not least—how could any milkweed be least?) of the milkweeds we tracked down in Minnesota was the state-threatened prairie milkweed. We had despaired of seeing it in its single known Minnesota location, a 500-acre Wildlife Management Area (WMA), which felt like looking for a very tiny needle in a very large hayfield. This year, though, we did finally track it down and counted more than fifty prairie milkweed blooming.

How many miles have we chalked up chasing milkweeds? We don’t know, but we do know we’ll chalk up some more when we cross over into Wisconsin next summer in hope of seeing purple milkweed where it’s said to still grow. If we see it, you might hear us cheering loudly.  Then, we might even head off in search of a craft beer.

SEE MORE AND READ MORE about the milkweeds we’ve tracked down!

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