Prairie Day

October 11, 2021

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

Even though it’s well into October and flowers have mostly gone to seed except for late bloomers like asters and some goldenrods, a prairie in fall is still a fine place to be, so on Sunday we headed out to visit two prairies not far from the Twin Cities. 

At McKnight prairie, wind bent the prairie grasses in graceful arcs, and white seed heads shone in the sunlight as brightly as new-fallen snow.  Sumac leaves burned red, a few goldenrod flowers still bloomed, and prairie blazing star gone to seed stood up like bottle brushes. The biggest surprise:  partridge pea still blooming, the yellow flowers catching the sunlight and holding it like cups of gold.  One black-eyed Susan still had its black eyed, yellow petaled flowers, and bumble bees buzzed in the few blue asters we came across.  We searched for whorled milkweed and butterflyweed, both of which we remembered seeing here before, but the only signs of milkweed were a few opened seed pods on tall, leafless, single stems—maybe Sullivant’s or common milkweed, but not whorled or butterflyweed.  

At our next stop, River Terrace Prairie Scientific and Natural Area, we did find whorled milkweed pods, some already spilling seeds to the wind, some still pointing upward like candelabra.  Here we identified dotted blazing star gone to seed, one of the blazing stars we’ve worked to identify this past year.   

The sky was autumn blue, the bright sun a photographer’s challenge, but the use of a sunshade and shoga (shade yoga where we contort our bodies to throw shadows on flowers for the sake of a picture) helped.

Spring, summer, fall, winter– any time of year the prairie holds surprises, and the wind under a wide prairie sky blows away all concerns, at least for a while, making any day a prairie day.

Chasing Flowers Past Their Prime

September 26, 2021

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

Why go flower chasing when most of the flowers are done blooming for the year?  Because finding flowers even far gone to seed will help us know where to locate them next year to catch them in bloom. 

Kelly had seen Great Lakes gentian gone to seed, a flower on our wish list, when she was up on the north shore earlier in the week, so we headed north together so I could see them, too.  At a spot off highway 61 not only did we find the seed heads and distinctive gentian leaves of Great Lakes gentian (gone even more to seed), we also saw a few late nodding ladies’-tresses nearby.

Our next north shore stop was Cascade River State Park where last winter we’d found a stalk poking up through the snow that we tentatively identified as “some kind of orchid.” We’d missed getting to the north shore this summer to see what kind of orchid it might be when it bloomed, but even this late in the year we still hoped to find enough clues to identify it.  We found the stalk easily, and although the flowers had withered, the two wide leaves at the bottom of the stalk narrowed our choices to Hooker’s orchid or lesser round-leaved orchid.  Next year we’ll plan a visit to see it blooming in all its glory.

Another surprise:  not only were the fall leaves turning, but color scattered across the forest floor as well.  Bunchberry leaves were now deep red with green-edged veins, sarsaparilla leaves had turned a soft coral, and a few blue beads of bluebead lily stood up on stalks. Who knew these spring wildflowers held so many colors of fall? 

A search the next day for a different kind of ladies’-tresses led us over rocks, through woods, and up and down hills until we found the plant, again long gone to seed but one that we’ll come back to see blooming next summer.  And what’s not to like about a hike through the woods where moss covers boulders and maples leaves burn red under pines?  

Our final sojourn led us far, far down a dirt road to an even narrower dirt road where asters, goldenrods, and pearly everlasting still bloomed.  We left the car and followed a railroad track to another railroad track to a power line cut, in hopes of one last ladies’-tresses sighting of the weekend.  Here our luck ran out, but we still had an enjoyable hike way into the back of beyond.  

Even when flowers are long done blooming we love the places our searching takes us and the splendid time we get to spend out of doors under a wide blue autumn sky.

Into the Woods

August 17, 2021

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

We have always visited the woods in springtime for those early spring ephemerals that need to bloom before the trees leaf out.  But we’ve learned that some flowers grow in the shade of trees throughout the summer because they don’t need sunshine—they have no chlorophyll to make their own food and depend on fungi and rotting debris to feed them.  

One of these flowers is autumn coralroot.  Like most of the coralroots it has no chlorophyll (early coralroot has a little chlorophyll in its stem but still needs fungi), so it can bloom even in deep shade.  On an August evening we headed to a county park where almost all of the trees are virgin forest and where, thanks to a tip from a wildflower friend, we had seen autumn coralroot growing last September.  

Maybe we were a week or so too early.  Maybe this year the coralroot decided to wait out the drought—the ground was so hard it was easy to imagine plants underground with little jackhammers trying to break through.  Whatever the reason, the only possible sign of autumn coralroot was a mowed-over brown patch of dried stems sticking a few inches out of the ground that might possibly have been last year’s autumn coralroot stems.

We did see lots of ghost pipe just emerging from the leaf litter, so white it seemed to glow. Like coralroot, ghost pipe has no chlorophyll—it, too, depends on fungi to feed it. Finding ghost pipe always feels like a treat, something pale and mysterious unfolding as it grows and looking, well, ghostly.

We were thrilled, too, to find zigzag goldenrod growing at the edge of the woods.  This year we’re working on learning all of the goldenrods, and being able to identify zigzag brings our total of ones we’re sure of to four out of eighteen:  zigzag, stiff, white upland, and grass-leaved. Only fourteen more to go.

The evening was still so hot that we dripped with sweat. Like ghost pipe and the ghost of autumn coralroot, we, too, were shade lovers, glad of the occasional breeze.  And since we, too, have no chlorophyll, we were glad, to come across a weekly summer event in nearby Henderson, full of classic cars, folks enjoying the evening, and food trucks where we feasted before we headed home.