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.

Prairie Hopping, Day Three

September 20, 2020

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

We awake to treetops tossed by wind, a forecast that the wind will die by 3 o’clock and that no rain will fall.  Our first stop, Frenchman’s Bluff Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) is a place we both immediately fall in love with.  Deep ravines and scooped-out areas must once have been mined for gravel since we see similar mines nearby, but dry prairie species have reclaimed the dug-out areas, and the hills are covered with shortgrass prairie plants.  Even though wind is gusting up to 17 miles per hour, down in the low places and on the leeward side of hills we are pleasantly warm and sheltered. Out in the wind we shiver and pull our windbreakers close. 

White asters, blue asters, grey goldenrod, stiff goldenrod punctuate the reddish little bluestem grass that rolls with the wind like waves on an ocean.  Many prairie plants are long gone to seed:  leadplant, rough blazing star, prairie clover, dotted blazing star, prairie onion, thimbleweed in puffy white clouds.  An abundance of prairie smoke leaves makes us promise to return next spring to see the hills covered with their flowers along with the pasque flowers and two kinds of pussytoes whose leaves we spot. 

We’re surprised by how many gentians we find, both bottle and downy, including one downy gentian plant with at least a dozen stems and many more buds.  We’ve only seen downy gentian flowers open before, and we marvel at the swirling spirals of color on the still-closed buds.

Blanketflowers are listed at this SNA, but we look in vain for the bright red and yellow blossoms rising up like pinwheels in the prairie. Instead, we find one bunch of tall sturdy stalks with white hairs and large, round, spiky seed heads that we think might possibly be blanketflower gone to seed.  If they are, they have clearly not read the descriptions that say they bloom from May to September.  This gone-to-seed bunch is our only clue, and while we’re not completely sure we are looking at blanketflower, maybe at our next stop we’ll find more evidence.

Next stop is Felton Prairie SNA where blanketflowers are also listed.  Our first stop has a convenient patch by the roadside of more tall, hairy stalks and spiky seed heads, which strengthens our conviction that we really are seeing blanketflower gone to seed.   Yet another good reason to come back earlier next year to see them in bloom.

We want to check out one more section of Felton prairie so, following written directions plus an I-phone blue dot, we turn down a single lane dirt road between farm fields.  A bullet-hole-pocked sign warns that this road is minimum maintenance travel at your own risk, and we soon learn why. The road quickly becomes two tire tracks between trees, and the tracks turn into muddy ruts.  Not wanting to risk damaging the car, we finally find a place wide enough to turn around. Reluctant  to turn back yet, we park and continue on foot, skirting the muddy puddles.

SNA signs eventually prove us right, but trees and shrubs grow too tightly for us to get inside the SNA.  Still, the wind tosses the glowing golden aspen leaves, it’s a fine day for a walk, and we’ve come this far. Why turn back now?  A little farther on, the trees open up into prairie, and there among the grasses are the same tall, black, spiky seed heads we’ve seen twice now.  This time they are scattered all around, the mother lode (for us, so far) of blanketflowers. 

We’re certain there is an easier way into this section of SNA.  In fact, we’re pretty certain that no one else has ever tried to get in down this loosely named road.  But we’re glad we came, glad we found what we’re now certain are blanketflowers, and we laugh as we make our careful way back to the car and to the highway around ruts and through puddles.

Now we scan the roadsides for seed heads rising up like black punctuation marks as we drive to our last stop of the day, Bluestem Prairie SNA. Along one side of the SNA we stop to investigate more likely blanketflower candidates, and as we hop over a shallow ditch we look down at pale yellow flowers and round little seed heads.  A quick i.d. check tells us we are looking at grass of Parnassus, an unexpected find.

The wind has not died down at 3 as promised, the zero percent chance of rain falls briefly on us, but we don’t care. We carry our rain gear, and when Kelly wants to take a photo I hold the flower still against the gusts. Bluestem Prairie offers up flowering Great Plains ladies’-tresses on their way to seed, downy gentian in bloom, more blanketflower gone to seed, more grass of Parnassus, smooth rattlesnake root, dotted blazing star in seed, and large-flowered penstemmon with its distinctive seed pods and dried leaves.

It is a very good (even if windy) wildflower-chasing day.

Prairie Hopping, Day One and Two

September 18-19, 2020

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

It’s mid-September, but the prairie is still going, and so are we.  We’ve done only day trips so far this summer because of corona virus, but now we plan a three-day trip to western Minnesota taking along a camper so we have a place to stay at night without worrying about social distancing.  Identifying each of Minnesota’s eighteen different goldenrods is one of our primary goals for the trip, but we also have a laundry list of flowers that grow mainly in the western part of the state. 

Friday noon we head off to Minnesota’s only saline lake which has water about a third as salty as seawater.  The lake itself is only about three hundred acres in size but still smells like the ocean.  We slurp our way along the thin rim of soggy sand and dried reeds that edges the lake and happen upon a small succulent-looking plant that we later identify as red saltwort. We are thrilled to find a plant we haven’t seen before.

Next stop: Yellow Banks Hill Scientific and Natural Area (SNA), seventy-eight rolling acres of prairie grasses with bright spots of color from dotted blazing star, goldenrods, and asters. Here we identify the yellow flowers and feathery leaves of cut-leaf iron plant and the silvery leaves of Missouri milkvetch, two more new-to-us plants. We hoped to see velvety goldenrod, listed as growing here, but no luck.  We’ll keep looking.

Home for the night is Big Stone Lake State Park, where the wind comes across from South Dakota to rustle the trees, and the sky fills with more stars than we ever see in the city. 

We leave early the next day (though not as early as in high summer, since daylight comes later now, and besides, the camper is comfy with a second cup of coffee). At a corner of Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge we stop briefly to search for and identify goldenrods.  We find goldenrods aplenty, some already colorfully going to seed, but soon realize we don’t know enough to identify a plant whose description might read:  “leaves may be pointed or rounded, smooth or serrated, hairy or not.” Turns out there’s a good reason we have simply said in the past, “Yep, that’s some kind of solidago,” and moved on. We do manage to add a couple of goldenrods to the list of ones we are (almost) sure of–stiff goldenrod, grass-leaved goldenrod, showy goldenrod, grey goldenrod, and upland white goldenrod. Beyond that, we put identifying goldenrods on our “next year” list and drive on. Still, we are glad we stopped to see the hills and sloughs of Big Stone burning with fall colors in the early morning light.

On our way to the next stop, Ottertail Prairie SNA, we pass a small lake crowded at one end with pelicans and what we tentatively identify as cormorants. Around one edge of the lake a line of twenty or so egrets elegantly stands. When we stop the car for Kelly to photograph them, the pelicans and cormorants lift up in a flurry of wings and set down again in the middle of the lake while the egrets simply watch, calm and unmoving.

Otter Tail Prairie SNA is 320 acres, so rather than walk across the whole expanse we park to walk an area of it, then drive along to the next area and walk some more, looking for pleated gentians, which only grow in the northwestern prairies.  We find one bottle gentian blooming, then no more gentians for several hours until we drive to another side of the SNA.  There within a few minutes we discover both bottle gentians gone to seed and also smaller gentians still blooming blue whose leaves look slightly different.  Bottle gentians, or pleated gentians still in bud? Here, too, we don’t have enough information to tell decisively what we are seeing.  We find the same two kinds of plants at Western Prairie SNA but no open pleated gentians, whose distinctive white-speckled petals would make identification easy. 

We end the day at Buffalo River State Park with a brief visit to nearby Bluestem Prairie SNA, then head back to the camper as the sun sets red in a haze from western wildfires.  Tomorrow more prairies, more searching, and who knows?  Maybe blanketflower, another flower on our wish list.  

Maybe even a blooming pleated gentian.