A Sweet Day

September 18, 2022

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

Even in mid-September there’s plenty of flower-chasing yet to do. On a partly overcast Sunday morning we set out to see if we could chase down one of Minnesota’s last orchids of the year to bloom, Great Plains ladies’-tresses, whose small white flowers spiral around a stem.  Great Plains ladies’-tresses looks similar to nodding ladies’-tresses, but one way to distinguish between the two is by their smell:  Great Plains ladies’-tresses, according to one guide book, smells like almonds.  Another way to tell the difference is by their habitat.  Great Plains ladies’-tresses is one of only three Minnesota orchids specific to prairie, along with western prairie fringed orchid and small white lady’s-slipper. We hoped to find the orchids in a goat prairie at King’s and Queen’s Bluff Scientific and Natural Area (SNA), where they are listed as growing.  The SNA is part of Great River Bluffs State Park, so we headed southeast through early light that silvered the waters of the Mississippi River and Lake Pepin.

The entrance into the park passed through prairie colored yellow with goldenrod and purple and white with asters.  We’ve been trying to learn all the goldenrods in the state (Minnesota Wildflowers lists 18 of them), and we’d gotten up to four we were pretty sure we could recognize and one more we were absolutely sure of– upland white goldenrod, the only white goldenrod in the state.) We stopped along the prairie drive and figured out another:  the bright plumes of showy goldenrod.  

And on those showy goldenrods a surprise –hundreds of monarch butterflies, orange and black wings dark against the golden flowers.  We ventured into the prairie a bit, careful not to disturb the feeding monarchs, and discovered another surprise, a multitude of cream gentian still blooming. Many flowers were beginning to brown, but some were still a pale yellow, their blossoms like little bunched bouquets. Already the day was a delight.  What would the goat prairie hold?

The path to the goat prairie led through woods, where we identified another goldenrod, elm-leaved goldenrod whose shape makes us think of fountains or fireworks.  Reddish-brown berries of Solomon’s seal and vivid red clusters of Jack-in-the-pulpit seeds brightened the forest floor, and ghost pipe gleamed palely under white pines. The goat prairie, when we came to it on one side of the path, was true to its name:  a hillside that fell away so steeply you needed to be as sure-footed as a goat to traverse it. Here, too, goldenrod and aster bloomed, and monarchs flitted among them. 

We kept to the path, which ended in a stunning overlook of the Mississippi river and surrounding bluffs. There, in the short prairie grasses next to the path, we found Great Plains ladies’-tresses, freshly opened flowers curving in bright white spires. When I knelt down to smell one, the flowers really did smell sweetly of almonds. 

Whenever we’re out flower chasing, it’s hard to quit after just one place, and since one of our favorite SNAs, Mound Prairie, wasn’t far away, we decided to check it out.  Mound Prairie SNA is made up of three goat prairies rising above the surrounding countryside, and here, too, we discovered Great Plains ladies’-tresses in bloom along with asters, goldenrod, and a few last brightly yellow partridge pea flowers.

Not much farther down the highway Magelssen Park towers above Rushford, so we decided to  stop there, too, to see if we could find cliff goldenrod among the rocks.  No cliff goldenrod to be seen (that we could identify, anyway), but even more Great Plains ladies’-tresses welcomed us in the brown and yellow grasses of a remnant goat prairie.  

With plenty of daylight left, and with Pin Oak Prairie SNA almost on our way home, why not make one last stop to see what else might be blooming or gone to glorious seed? The reason why not became evident as soon as we turned down the road toward Pin Oak Prairie SNA and discovered that the bridge across a little river was under construction.  With no other easy route to reach the SNA, we decided maybe it really was time to head home. So we did.  We’ll be going out again to look for more fall flowers and seeds, but in a year when we’ve finally managed to see all of the possible orchids in Minnesota, ending our orchid year with a hat trick of Great Plains ladies’-tresses felt, well, as sweet as the smell of almonds.

Gentian Time

August 26, 27 and 28, 2022

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

Come fall, Minnesota’s prairies turn yellow with goldenrods, sneezeweed, sunflowers. Deeper down in the grass, blue blossoms open—Minnesota has seven different species of blue gentians.  Over the years we’d seen all but one of them, pleated gentian, a state special concern flower, and because it’s gentian time we headed to northwestern Minnesota where pleated gentian’s been known to grow in saline prairie.  As we drove, we realized our route would take us close to Badoura Jack Pine Woodland, a Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) that we’d visited last summer when drought parched the state, so we veered from our planned route to visit it again.  

Even with the ground crunching underfoot last year, we’d been intrigued by the open woodland under the tall jack pine trees, which only regenerate after fire releases their seeds.  Under those trees we’d been surprised and delighted to find tessellated rattlesnake plantain blooming.

Now as we stepped into the woodland, the mossy ground felt soft, and green surrounded us.  This time, too, we found several tessellated rattlesnake plantain plants, their spires gone to seed and their distinctive leaves withered and brown. Lowbush blueberries, snowberries, and bearberries ripened, making a feast for any passing bear (luckily, none passed us, although last week we did see a bear cross the road as we drove through a wildlife management area).  We lingered in the Jack Pine woodland, a habitat critically imperiled in Minnesota and rare worldwide. But we had a pleated gentian to find, and so eventually we continued on.

Once we came to the small prairie where we’d heard pleated gentian grew, it didn’t take long to find six of the plants nestled in the grass, delicate and small but blooming beautifully. We spent the rest of the afternoon scouring nearby prairies that had saline habitat, but we had no luck finding any more pleated gentians. 

One last stop before finding a place for the night was a prairie where we’d once seen what we thought was lesser fringed gentian, and we couldn’t resist a stop to see if the flowers were still there—and if they were, indeed, the lesser fringed gentian.  (When we’d worked on our first wildflower book we had initially identified a greated fringed gentian as a lesser one–the two species look similar, grow in the same habitats, and have an overlapping range of height.) Roscoe Prairie SNA lists lesser fringed gentian, so we planned to stop there on our way home the next day to try to figure the fringed gentians out.

Next morning was a pure prairie morning. Rain in the night had left the air sweet and fresh, and Ottertail Prairie SNA, where we stopped for one more pleated gentian search, blazed with sunflowers and the vivid blue of countless bottle gentians. Monarchs filled the air, flying from northern blazing star to northern blazing star.  We didn’t find any pleated gentians, but deep in the prairie we came across a willow tree where hundreds and hundreds of monarchs clung fluttering to the leaves.  Later we learned that we were looking at a roost, something that monarchs, who migrate singly, will sometimes form at night along their journey. All wildflower searching paused as we stood in wonder watching monarchs come and go.

Roscoe Prairie SNA did indeed reveal many fringed gentians along a ditch.  Based on our research of the difference in plant height, length of the fringe on flower petals, and width of leaves (everything is a little lesser on lesser fringed gentians) we determined that these were indeed lesser fringed gentians.  And beautiful.

We still weren’t done with gentians, though.  More research revealed that cream gentian, which we’d only ever seen growing in a park, was blooming wild in a ditch down along highway 56 in southern Minnesota, so after a night in our own beds we headed out again.  The rain poured down mile after mile after mile, and we fretted that the flowers might not even be open, since at least some gentians open in the sun and close at night or when the sky clouds over.  Luckily, cream gentian blossoms are almost as closed as bottle gentians, so they don’t have much opening to do.  Luckier still, the rain stopped just as we spotted the cream gentians alongside the road, far too many to count (I tried), and gloriously cream-colored in the wet morning.

Pleated gentians, bottle gentians, lesser fringed gentians, and cream gentians.  Not to mention a tree full of butterflies. 

A pretty-much perfect weekend of wildflower chasing.

The Last Orchid

August 19, 2022

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

Native Orchids of Minnesota by Welby Smith lists 48 orchids native to Minnesota (plus one that grows wild but was brought over from Europe).  At some point in our wildflower chasing, we realized we were seeing many of those orchids, so we made it a goal to see all 48 native orchids blooming in Minnesota. 

Only one problem (well, actually three):  
the most recent specimen of Oklahoma grass-pink was documented in 1884; 
only one record of broad-leaved twayblade exists from 1924;
the two recorded specimens of southern slender ladies’-tresses are from 1889.

We revised our list of orchids we might reasonably see to 45, and slowly our list grew shorter until only two orchids remained, tall white bog orchid, which we’d seen in June 2021 blooming in a swamp in Wisconsin, and hooded ladies’-tresses, which eluded us.  We’d seen a posting of hooded ladies’-tresses in that same Wisconsin swamp, so when our Minnesota searches turned up empty, we headed across the river to Wisconsin on a moist sort of morning, cool and overcast with the promise of rain.  On our last visit we’d counted 12 different kinds of orchids at this site. Now in mid-August the only evidence of those previous orchids was a plethora of stemless lady’s-slipper leaves.  

Even without orchids, the bog was beautiful.  Under the trees green moss grew deep, while out in the open bog rosemary’s gray-green leaves stood out against rich red moss, dotted in places with large shiny ripening cranberries.  Purple pitcher plants nestled in the moss, their pinwheel flowers poking up as we made our way toward the north end of the small lake and the GPS coordinates where the hooded ladies’-tresses had been seen.

We were almost to where the orchid was said to be when we came to a bunch of braided water trails.  We’d crossed these water trails last year, but this year they were wider, deeper, and eager to suck up our boots when we took a tentative step. But we are intrepid, and by carefully helping each other leap across the streams (I use the word “leap” loosely, “stagger over” is a better description) we made it to more solid ground.

And there on the other side of the water trails we found the hooded ladies’-tresses, blossoms white against the green. Kelly took pictures while I counted at least 15 hooded ladies’-tresses plants in various stages of bloom. We felt rich in orchids. 

We still want to see hooded ladies’-tresses and tall white bog orchid blooming in Minnesota where they also grow.  But for now we celebrated actually seeing all the seeable orchids native to Minnesota blooming somewhere.  (And if anyone ever discovers time travel, we might just go back to the 1880s and 1920s to look for those last three orchids that once grew in Minnesota.)

As we hopped from hummock to hummock on our way back toward the car, we wondered why so many of the orchids in this swamp grew only at the far end of the lake.  A little internet research provided a possible answer: turns out the bog itself varies in alkalinity, with the north end more alkaline while the south end is more acidic.  Fourteen species of orchids are said to grow at this site, and by our count we had just seen the thirteenth.  

But that’s numbers and checklists and bean-counting. What really matters is the memory of those white spires of hooded ladies’-tresses in bloom, the deep greens and reds of the sphagnum moss, and the silence of a bog on a cloudy day. Whether or not we ever find that fourteenth orchid that grows here, we will be back to this magical place, happily hummock-hopping.

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