Another First

September 6, 2020

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

Once the spring wildflowers fade, we seldom go back to the woods.  Instead we head for prairie and bog and rocky shores where flowers bloom into the fall. But when word came that autumn coral root was blooming in a woods at a county park, we hopped in the car and drove straight there.  Last fall we’d trekked through Miesville Ravine in an unsuccessful search for this inconspicuous orchid.  Now, thanks to specific instructions generously given, we found it almost as soon as we arrived at the park. 

Autumn coral root, like most of the coral roots, has no chlorophyll and depends on a relationship with mycorrhizal fungi for food.  Its yellow-green to brownish color provides good camouflage against the fall forest floor, but we found clumps and single plants both. Minnesota Wildflowers states that this is a plant perhaps only a mother could love, and both of us, mothers, loved it.  In the same area:  many many ghost pipe plants, which also lack chlorophyll, glowing white in the muted light under the trees.  

We also identified the leaves of several springtime flowers—bloodroot, hepatica, Solomon’s seal—and the bright red berry clusters of Jack in the pulpit gone to seed and swore we’d come back to this rich little bit of woods in the spring to catch these flowers blooming.

Another stop at Rush River County Park led us up a tilty railroad tie stairs to a small but rich prairie remnant where we saw cylindric blazing star, leadplant, asters, prairie onion, goldenrods, harebell, and, most surprising, blanket flower—lovely, but most likely a garden escapee as it doesn’t grow in this part of the state. We also saw many cedars encroaching on this piece of native prairie and hope that plans are being made to remove them to let the prairie thrive in sunlight. We have so little native prairie left that we should do everything possible to keep what we still have while we still have it.

The sun shone, a sweet breeze blew, temperatures were in the seventies, and we were close enough to Kasota Prairie Scientific and Natural Area (SNA), to drive on down to look for downy gentian, which grows in dry, hilly ground. The SNA list of wildflowers for Kasota Prairie doesn’t include any gentians, but I had a memory of seeing many bottle gentians there years ago, so we went in hope of seeing bottle or downy gentian—or even both.

Even with poison ivy rampant in the SNA (thank you, rubber boots, for keeping us poison ivy-free) the prairie still delights with white asters, blue asters, purple asters, goldenrod abuzz with bees, prairie grasses, big bluestem, prairie onion, and blazing stars.  And there, not more than a minute along a path into the prairie, we found a downy gentian brilliantly blue.  A few minutes later, we found another.  Hopeful, we traversed the prairie, marveling at all the butterflies whose names we don’t know and watching for the telltale gentian blue.  We were almost to the other side when we spotted a bottle gentian, its leaves pristine, its flowers blooming not only at the top but also in two other leaf axils along the stem—the most beautiful gentian either of us had ever seen in all our gentian hunting days.

One more downy gentian and one more bottle gentian revealed themselves. Kelly wanted one more photograph of downy gentian number two, so we made our slow way back toward it, stopping to search for a Kalm’s lobelia we thought we’d seen earlier this summer.  No lobelia, and by the time we reached the downy gentian, the day had wound down enough that the flower had closed up its petals.  So had downy gentian number one.  Who knew the flowers closed up as the light waned?  We knew now—one more tiny bit of knowledge about the wildflowers we love.

In a month where we expect to see goldenrods, grasses, asters, and blazing stars, we also found the unexpected. Autumn coral root, ghost pipe in abundance, downy gentian, and a perfect bottle gentian.  We drove home so excited, satisfied, and satiated with sunshine and new-to-us flowers that we forgot to eat supper- yet another first.

Prairie Perfect

August 31, 2020

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

A hard week in a hard summer.
Yet another black man shot by police.
More Covid-19 deaths.
Politics that seek to divide us instead of unite us.

Overwhelmed by it all, we decided to head to Iron Horse Prairie Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) to search for gentians.  One of the finest prairie remnants in southeastern Minnesota, Iron Horse Prairie was saved by being sandwiched between two former railroad track spurs. The prairie lies below and between them. 

We followed the path into the SNA to where the prairie proper begins. Barely at the bottom of the slope we found them:  bottle gentian after bottle gentian after bottle gentian, their closed blue blossoms bright in the grass.  Bumblebees pollinate the flowers, fighting their way inside and out again. Who knows what evolutionary advantage being hard-to-get offers bottle gentians, but it works:  we found more blooming than we’d ever seen before.

Iron Horse holds two other kinds of gentians, fringed and stiff, and it wasn’t long before we found both.  Fringed gentian’s four petals overlap in a bloom not much more than an inch across.  Stiff gentian, its many blossoms lighter blue, always reminds us of rockets with its skyward pointing flowers. In one small area all three gentians grew in proximity, a gentian hat trick.

We’ve been to prairies this year where the sweat dripped from our hair in the heat, but on this day a sweet breeze kept us cool, and at times the clouds even covered the sun for Kelly’s photos. (Other times I held the shade screen for her in a variety of flower-chasing yoga poses.)  

Many of the flowers we’d seen here on earlier visits were already gone to seed—rattlesnake master, prairie clover, wild quinine—but many blazing stars still bloomed along with goldenrods, asters, smooth rattlesnake root, and, surprisingly, white rattlesnake root, which we’ve mostly seen at the edges of woods.  One theory:  trees used to grow along the now-cleared path into the SNA, and perhaps rattlesnake root took advantage of that shade to grow.  

On our way back to the cities we couldn’t resist stopping at McKnight Prairie, part of the Carleton College Arboretum. We’ve never been there at this time of year, but because of Covid-19 we’ve spent the summer going to places closer to home, and we’ve stopped here often. Now the prairie surprised us with Indian grass higher than our heads, the graceful stalks waving in the breeze that is an integral part of prairie life. Goldenrods, asters, and sweet everlasting bloomed along with partridge pea still flowering bright yellow while the sun lit the translucent seed pods that had already formed.

And then the surprise of the day:  rough-seeded fameflower, a small, state-threatened plant.  We’d seen small-flowered fameflower’s round, succulent-looking leaves (but no flowers) at Morton Outcrop SNA earlier in August.  And now we were looking down at rough-seeded fameflower, whose flowers only bloom for a day each and only at the end of the day.  A gift from the prairie that made our hearts happy.  

Our shadows stretched long across the prairie before we were ready to head home.  We walked back to the car with the prairie hills glowing in the late day’s slanting light, glad we had gone gentian hunting and grateful for the unlooked-for gift of seeing rough-seeded fameflowers in bloom.

A late summer prairie perfect day.


Savanna Morning

August 8, 2020
Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

Once oak savanna, where prairie and forest meet, covered 10 per cent of Minnesota, about 5,000,000 acres.  Now, because of agriculture, grazing, and the suppression of wildfires that keep out encroaching trees, only about 30,000 acres of oak savanna remain in scattered remnants. One of those remnants, Helen Allison Savanna Scientific and Natural Area (SNA), twenty miles north of the Twin Cities, is an eighty-acre patchwork of oak trees, sand blowouts, wet swales (low places), and dry prairie.

We’d been here before to the more forested parts of the SNA, dodging poison ivy as we entered among the trees, now, on an overcast morning, the air heavy with moisture we headed out to open prairie with only a few free-standing bur oak and northern pin oak trees.  (Because of its thick, corky bark bur oak can withstand the fires that keep prairies and savannas healthy, and northern pin oak resprouts quickly after fire.) We walked in among abundant spotted beebalm, its odd-looking flowers each flower rising directly from the flower below in a stack of blossoms that made us think of Dr. Seuss. 

This visit we came in hope of seeing fourpoint (also known as rhombic) evening primrose, a flower of special concern in Minnesota and similar to Cleland’s evening primrose, the only two evening primroses with pointed petals native to Minnesota.  We quickly spotted a few likely candidates, their yellow flowers glowing in the saturated light, and compared them to pictures and notes we’d brought with us.  Conclusion:  we were seeing both kinds of plants, distinguished from each other in part by the stigmas and stamens. 

What else did we see among many, many spotted beebalm plants?  Round-headed bush clover, big bluestem, goldenrod, silky prairie clover, rough blazing star, cylindrical blazing star, dotted blazing star, sweet everlasting, and a few last spiderwort along with one prairie violet bravely blooming blue among the yellows, greens and whites of a late-summer prairie along with an abundance of grasses whose names we do not yet know.  

A pair of sandhill cranes flew overhead, voicing their rattling call.  Flowers bloomed, grasses waved, bees busily buzzed, and we’d found two new-to-us pointed-petal primroses. We couldn’t think of a better place to be on an August morning.