Cactus on the Rocks

August 10, 2018
Author, Phyllis Root
Photographer, Kelly Povo

Cactuses?  In Minnesota?

Yes. Three kinds of cactuses grow here, surviving by losing water in winter and plumping out again once warmer weather returns.  Plains prickly pear (Opuntia macrorhiza) is the one we’ve seen most often, but we’ve also found brittle prickly pear (Opuntia fragilis) growing in Quarry Park near Saint Cloud.

Ball cactus (Escobaria vivipara), Minnesota’s third kind of cactus and one of its rarest plants, grows only on granite outcrops in the western part of the state at the eastern edge of its range. On a hot, sunny day we set out to see if we could find it.

Rock outcrops abound in western Minnesota, but the ball cactus grows in an area of only a few square miles, and we thought we had a good idea of where to look for it.  For hours we climbed rocks exposed when glacial Lake Agassiz washed over the area, peered down into cracks, and saw more brittle prickly pear than we could have imagined.  The photos we’d seen of ball cactus all showed the plant covered with a brilliant magenta bloom, but none showed the shape of a non-blooming cactus, and we were at least one month too late to see the vivid flowers. We looked hopefully at the small, roundish ends of young brittle prickly pear.  Could this be a ball shape?  Or this?  Or this? No, no, and no.

The sun beat down, birds called, and we scrambled and clambered over outcrop after outcrop, careful where we put our feet.  Finally, sun-soaked and sweat-drenched, we phoned a knowledgeable acquaintance pleading for more specific information.  He directed us to the first small outcrop we’d driven past, intent on the larger outcrops looming ahead.  Now we walked gingerly over the flattish rocks and within a minute spotted perfectly round little cactuses with radiating bursts of spines, beautifully geometric and unmistakably ball-shaped. A few grew individually, but many grew in clusters like round prickly pillows.

Kelly took photo after photo while we marveled at the sight of this small, rare plant that persists and survives in cracks of Minnesota rock. We’re glad we persisted, too, and we’re also glad for folks who know more than we do and are willing to point us in the right direction (thank you, Scott). We’ll be back next June to look for the cactuses blooming which should make them much easier to spot, but meanwhile, we’ll savor the sight of these small exquisite cactuses at the end of a long day. Sunshine, rocks, prairie breezes, and a successful search—only one more thing would make the day complete.

We set off to find something cold to drink.

It Really Does Bloom!

August 5, 2018
For years we’ve been convinced that if downy rattlesnake plantain orchid really does bloom (and not just go directly from bud to seed pod), it must do so between 12 a.m. and 12:03 a.m. on a single night in alternate leap years.  Maybe.

A few summers ago, determined to catch it flowering, we made frequent trips north to Falls Creek Scientific and Natural Area where we’d seen the distinctive leaves of this orchid.  Our searches went something like this:
Buds
Buds
Buds
Buds
Seeds

Then we saw a post online with an actual photo of downy rattlesnake plantain at a different location blooming. Sure, we thought, it might bloom there, but the ones we’ve been watching don’t bloom.  Ever. But we live in hope, and it was a lovely day for a walk in the woods, so we headed north to Falls Creek.

Rain had fallen the night before, but the sun was out, and the light fell green through the trees, with pockets of sun piercing the canopy.  Even the air smelled green and fresh. As we hiked, we noted the leaves of many spring flowers—starflower, bloodroot, Solomon’s seal, Jack-in-the-pulpit, Canadian wild ginger– and promised ourselves to come back in the spring. As we hiked farther from where we had parked the traffic noise fell away, and we heard the sweet sound of the creek below us, where mist rose from the water like a mystical, magical morning of another world.

And there, along the path, we saw what we had thought might be a botanical myth:  downy rattlesnake plantain in full bloom, a single bright spike with small white flowers along its length. As we continued down the path, we saw another, and another, and another.  Indian pipe, a plant with no chlorophyll of its own, shone white on the forest floor.

South of Falls Creek, we stopped at Afton State Park for a walk in the restored prairie, where compass plant, wild bergamot, prairie ironweed, coneflower, blue vervain, milkweed, spotted Joe-pye weed, rattlesnake master, stiff goldenrod, prairie onion, and rough blazing star were in full boom.  Yellow seeds on Indian grass quivered in the breeze like rows of tiny flags flying.  And there, on a wild bergamot flower, we saw an unfamiliar butterfly with a wingspan as wide as my hand.  Later we learned that it was a giant swallowtail. We also read on an interpretive sign the best definition we’ve seen yet of native plants: “native plants naturally occur in the place where they evolved.”

A day filled with native flowers in forest and prairie, with lesser rattlesnake plantain orchid in bloom, and with a giant swallowtail butterfly.  A good day to be out.

Phyllis Root, author
Kelly Povo, photographer

Happy International Bog Day!

International Bog Day, July 29, 2018

We love bogs.  From my first glimpse of the Big Bog up by Waskish, Minnesota, I fell in love with these wild and strange-to-me places—the mosses, the unusual plant inhabitants, the soft-needled tamarack trees, the great silence as though the deep peat soaks up sound.  Since then we’ve visited many bogs and many kinds of bogs, and we love them all.

Bogs are circumpolar, most of them occurring around the globe in the northern half of the earth.  The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources defines a bog as occurring “only on deep saturated peat… isolated from ground water and from water that flows from mineral soil…[which] makes bog water very low in mineral nutrients and very acidic so only very specialized plant species can survive these conditions.” Another way to think of a bog is as a bowl—water doesn’t really flow in or out.  Cold acidic water, harsh growing conditions:  bog plants are tough survivors.

This post is a tribute to some of the best bog visits we’ve had so far.

Lake Bemidji State Park Bog Boardwalk leads to the edge of a small lake and back.  Along the way signs point out some of the features.  With and without the help of signs we’ve seen, at various times, purple pitcher plant, Labrador tea, bog rosemary, stemless lady’s-slipper, grass pink orchid, buckbean, early coral root, three-leaf goldthread, and tiny insect-eating sundew.

At Long Lake bug shirts and raincoats were the fashion statement of the day. The lake is slowly filling in at the edges, a floating bog best seen from the water.  Canoeing around the edge of the lake we found many rose pogonia and grass pink orchids, along with sundew, bog cranberry, cottongrass, common bladderwort, and purple pitcher plant.  Even on a fallen log tiny little communities of plants grew.

Pennington Bog Scientific and Natural Area is an undisturbed forested bog so easily damaged that written permission from the Department of Natural Resources is needed to enter.  In the green light under white cedar, balsam fir, and black spruce trees calypso orchids (fittingly called fairy slippers) grow, along with lesser rattlesnake plantain, buckbean, gaywings, three-leaf goldthread, showy lady’s-slipper, and yellow lady’s-slipper.  A magically mysterious place.

Quaking Bog at Theodore Wirth Park in north Minneapolis is an urban remnant of a much larger bog, but even with a freeway nearby the atmosphere feels hushed. Here on various visits we’ve seen leatherleaf (the only place we’ve ever seen it blooming), buckbean, starflower, wild calla, Canada mayflower, and purple pitcher plant.

Iron Springs Bog Scientific and Natural Area up near Itasca State Park is a bog so big you’ll want a GPS to help you find your way back out again.  Here is where we first saw small round-leaved orchid, affectionately called (by us) polka-dotted orchid.   We also saw three-leaf goldthread, showy lady’s-slipper, Canada anemone, early coral root, purple pitcher plant, green bog orchid, sundew, Labrador tea, and tiny lesser rattlesnake plantain (although since finally seeing Hudson Bay eyebright we’ve redefined the meaning of “tiny”).

Minnesota has many more bogs and bog boardwalks—Sax Zim Bog, Hayes Lake State Park boardwalk–including one state park that once had a bog boardwalk until, the park ranger told us, “The bog ate it.” And even though we know that all landscapes change, that bogs at lake edges are slowly filling in, that bogs do eat boardwalks and that the bogs we know are only as old as the last ice age, we say long live bogs, big and small.  We love them all.

Happy International Bog Day!

Phyllis Root, Author
Kelly Povo, Photographer

They’re blooming? We’re on the way!

We came to the North Shore to see Hudson Bay eyebright and purple fringed orchid blooming, thanks to a helpful phone call from a master naturalist and fellow wildflower lover who told us where both were blooming.  And he was exactly right:  we drove north, turned along the road he told us, turned again, crossed the railroad tracks, made one more turn, and saw purple fringed orchid gloriously blooming up and down the roadside ditch.  Driving on up to Sugarloaf Cove on Lake Superior, we found the tiny, tiny arctic relict Hudson Bay eyebright blooming in cracks of rocks. The plants and flowers are so minute that we might never have found them without Phil’s help.

Scattered in crevices and seemingly growing right out of the rocks we found other small plants that Kelly photographed and we later identified:  white upland goldenrod, which looks like small daisies, three-tooth cinquefoil, shrubby cinquefoil.

Every fracture or dip in the rock seemed like a tiny world of its own.

On the path down to the cove spotted coral root grew.  Returning in the morning to get one more look at the eyebright, we also found beach pea in glowing blues and purples and magentas, spurred gentian, twin flowers and bunchberry blooming, early coral root, and, with the guidance of a naturalist at the Sugarloaf interpretive center, one-flowered pyrola and large leaved shinleaf.  One-flowered pyrola flowers face demurely downward until they go to seed—one group we saw going to seed had turned upward like a crowd of people staring at the sky.

We stopped so often along the road to photograph evening primrose, more purple fringed orchids, a tall northern bog orchid, smooth oxeye, and fringed loosestrife we thought we might never make it home.

We did, though, already eager for our next exploration and grateful for friends who share their enthusiasm and knowledge for the same native wildflowers we love.

Phyllis Root, Author
Kelly Povo, Photographer

 

North to Churchill, Day Eleven

July 11, 2018

We are driving back to the Twin Cities today and plan a few stops at places to look for flowers.  The first is Seven Sisters Prairie near Ashby.  The hills rise above the rolling landscape, and we climb the path up the first hill as the temperature climbs toward a high of 90 degrees.  Along the hilltops the prairie wind whips the grasses and flowers, a welcome relief from the hot sun, and the landscape—lake, farm, woods—stretches around us 360 degrees. Along the path that winds over the hilltops we find purple prairie clover, white prairie clover, Canadian milk vetch, stiff goldenrod, thimbleweed, harebell, fleabane, side-oats grama, hairy grama whorled milkweed, lead plant, prairie milkweed, ground cherry, prairie turnip, wild rose, wild bergamot, pale spiked lobelia, hairy false goldenaster, yellow sundrops, and green milkweed.  Bumblebees buzz, and dragonflies flit among the flowers like electric blue darning needles.  We are clearly back in the Minnesota prairie.

Then we lose the path in sumac. Is this it, we wonder.  Or this?  Or this? When we finally make our way through sumac waist-high and higher, down hills, under trees, and alongside a marsh through buckthorn to where we left the car we are both drenched in sweat and decide that perhaps we will head on home after all.  The other places we had planned to stop are well within driving distance of the twin cities, and we will come back another day soon.  We also invent a new word (or at least we think we do): shrubwhack.  Harder than bushwhacking, not as difficult as treewhacking.

As we drive through Alexandria, Minnesota, we spot Cherry Street Books, an independent bookstore, and stop for a quick look.  In the window we see our book Searching for Minnesota Wildflowers.  At our first stop on the way north at Mille Lacs State Park we also saw our book in the hands of a naturalist.  It seems auspicious that our trip is bookended by book sightings—we are already talking about doing some sort of book about Churchill and the sub-arctic wildflowers we’ve seen.

Quietly contemplative—so much to let settle in from the incredible experience we’ve just had—we drive on home.

p.s. We don’t recommend shrubwhacking, but we do recommend the Northern Studies Centre in Churchill, Manitoba.  It really is the experience of a lifetime.

 

North to Churchill, Day Ten

July 10, 2018

Our last morning in Churchill, we awake to the endless light and our last views  out the window of sun over tundra and lakes.  We pack the bug shirts that have been essential to the trip, say our good-byes, head for the airport.  Walking across the tarmac to the plane we both tear up.

Our plane takes us nearly 300 miles farther north to Rankin Inlet before heading toward Winnipeg.  Out the plane window as we descend toward Rankin Inlet the water is patterned with patches of floating ice.  Not a tree in sight—we are above the tree line now, the farthest  north either of us has ever been.  During the layover we start to walk to the nearby town (no bear guard needed) but are captivated by a gravelly bit of ground where we can’t stop ourselves from identifying white mountain-avens, northern hedysarum, broad-leaved fireweed, alpine milk-vetch, lacerate dandelion, bog asphodel, cotton-grass, dry-ground cranberry, long-stalked stitchwort, mouse-eared chickweed, dwarf Labrador tea, flame-coloured lousewort, and one flower new to us, a beautiful little ball of tiny pink blossoms which we figure out from our book is thrift. We feel as though we have passed a final in our wildflower class.

I’ve been thinking about this class for ten years.  Learning about the loss of the tundra train to Churchill spurred me to come; we are worried about the future of a town with no access except plane and barge.  And we are so glad we came.  Churchill has changed us in ways we have yet to discover.

On the plane to Winnipeg we make a list of what we are grateful for:
Northern Studies Centre
Our amazing instructor Jackie, who endlessly pointed out flowers and answered our questions.
Our bear guard Evan, who kept us safe
Our program assistants Carrie and Beth
Sunrise
Wildflowers
Rainbow
Whales
Everyone who makes the Centre work for researchers and learners like us
All the people who live and work in Churchill

What a gift.

North to Churchill, Day Nine

July 9, 2018

Up so early I can see the sun actually rising, a long line of brilliant orange at the edge of sky, water, trees.  Turning the other direction, I’m surprised by a  streak of double rainbow in the sky.

Today is a winding-down day, the last full day of our class, Into the Wildflowers, at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre.  We visit greenhouses that grow tomatoes and greens here in the north.  We drive past many of the amazing murals of the Seawall Project last year in Churchill, eat lunch in town, visit the Eskimo museum, and take a boat out into the mouth of the Churchill River where beluga whales rise in graceful curves around us in the bay, white adult whales and adolescent gray ones who don’t turn white until they are fully grown.  When the guide drops a hydrophone into the water, we hear the whales calling and singing.  Magical.

We finish at Prince of Wales fort, where the guide lets us veer from the tour to see a rare flower, bluebell, that both the bear guard and our instructor remember from last year.  Even on a winding down day, this is at least the third new-to-us flower we’ve seen, along with Harriet’s sage and seaside lungwort.

In the evening we hear a Metis elder and her daughter talk about their life, culture, and art, then finish the day with a lovely sampling of traditional food–grilled char, bannock, and two kinds of jelly, cranberry, and fireweed.

It is hard to imagine leaving Churchill tomorrow.  We are already scheming a return.
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