More Memorable Days in May

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

Looking Closer to Home, May 21, 2020

Over the past few years it’s become our tradition to head north in search of second spring over Memorial Day.  This year’s late spring in the Twin Cities combined with the wisdom of not traveling unless necessary in this time of Covid-19 made us look closer to home for flower-chasing places.

A favorite first place of spring is River Terrace Prairie Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) near Cannon Falls, a half hour’s drive away.  We always go for the pasqueflowers, but we’ve not really visited later in the year, so we set off to see what else might be blooming at the end of May.  Not only did we see ground plum, blue-eyed grass, violet oxalis, hoary puccoon, bird’s-foot violet, prairie violet, and bastard toadflax, we also saw more kittentails blooming than we’ve ever imagined, plus whole hillsides of pasqueflowers gone to see and two still blooming.  Prairie smoke blossomed bright pink, some in full bloom, others gone to wispy seed, and swathes of pussytoes raised their soft white paws in the air.

When we visited in April, we found only two early pasqueflowers blooming, and now at the end of May we’re seeing what we think are the last two.  In between times, the prairie has become a whole new place.

Our next stop had a specific goal:  to see if we could find bladderpod, one of Minnesota’s rare plants found only in Goodhue County.  Following information from a fellow flower lover we followed a trail through the woods to a steep goat prairie, where we found ourselves wishing we were goats as we carefully picked our way down a hillside path.  Even though our eyes were fixed on where to safely put our feet, we managed to look around enough to spy hoary puccoon, fringed puccoon, blue-eyed grass, bird’s foot violet, prairie violet, bastard toadflax, columbine, and downy painted cup.  And there, almost at the foot of the hillside, we spotted the bright yellow flowers of bladderpod blooming in the sandy soil.  All that remained was to admire them, photograph them, reclimb the hill, trek through the woods, and drive home, full of delight at a new look at a familiar place and a new-to-us flower in bloom.

Tracking Railroad Prairies, May 22

Friday we set out to visit all the railroad prairies we know of (and one we didn’t know about but stumbled upon).  Fires sparked by trains wheels help renew the narrow corridors of prairie along railroad track rights of way. When the railroad lines were abandoned, the prairie growth persisted.

We began at Racine Prairie SNA, a strip of land sandwiched between a highway and a farm field.  Much of the site was brushy or marshy, with croaking frogs competing with rushing traffic on the highway.  Here we found the deep pink buds and blue flowers of wild geranium along with golden Alexanders, yellow star grass, and a scattering of violets in bloom.  Many leaves promised future flowers, including rattlesnake master leaves with their toothy edges and the deeply-lobed, yellow-veined shiny green leaves of compass plant.  An enormous anthill teemed with activity; ants have been called “ecosystem engineers” for their roles in aerating soil, dispersing seeds, and recycling nutrients. A sign at the site informed us that of Minnesota’s 16 prairie communities, the tallgrass prairie has the most number of native species–over 300 of them. Car after car whizzed by us while we wondered at how much rich life persisted in this thin strip of land.

Next stop was a roadside ditch where we’d previously seen clusters of leaves we thought might be small while lady’s-slipper, a flower we were hoping to find in bloom.  After much searching we found the leaves but no buds or blossoms, and from the size of the leaves guessed they might be yellow lady’s-slipper, a guess that was later confirmed by a naturalist.

Shooting Star Prairie SNA, another railroad remnant, looked so overgrown we were doubtful at first at what we might find there. The prairie shooting stars that this particular SNA was named for (already rare in Minnesota) have vanished under road construction, but we did find wild strawberry, puccoon, false Solomon’s seal, and wood anemone blooming, along with the leaves of stiff goldenrod, Sullivant’s milkweed, bergamot, and prairie alumroot.

One of the maps listed Taopi Prairie, which we’d never heard of, so we stopped to check it out.  Here we discovered another small railroad prairie, maintained by members of Prairie Vision, with golden Alexanders blooming and the leaves of stiff goldenrod, bergamot, milkweed, yarrow, and meadow rue.  A sweet and unexpected find.

Wild Indigo Prairie SNA, another railroad remnant, is a twelve-mile long corridor of land with three access points from the road.  Despite our efforts, we couldn’t find the first parking spot, but we parked at the second spot and hiked both ways along a tunnel of trees.  Yellow violets grew thick, and a ditch burbled by between the tree corridor and a farm field, but after wandering and wondering when we would come to any prairie, we drove on to the third access point.  Here we found rattlesnake master leaves, compass plant leaves, blue flag leaves, and golden Alexanders and wild strawberry blooming.

We stopped at one last railroad remnant of mesic tallgrass prairie in Dodge County, and we had barely stepped in among the  prairie grasses when we spotted several small white lady’s-slippers, along with abundant edible valerian, blue-eyed grass, bastard toadflax, puccoon, yellow star grass, and the usual suspects of leaves of prairie blossoms yet to come.

A day full of prairies that survived because of railroads, prairie fires, and wise-minded people who helped and still help to keep them safe.

Perhaps next year we’ll be heading north again in search of second spring, but spending this year’s spring closer to home has opened up possibilities of new flowers and new sites to explore and made us glad for all the places, neglected and protected, where we can chase our native flowers.

A two-orchid day? Maybe

May 16, 2020

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

In this time of covid-19, we’ve made the decision to maintain social distancing while wildflower-chasing by avoiding parks with paths, but we make an exception for French Regional ParkJohn Moriarty, senior wildlife manager for Three Rivers Park District and author of A Field Guide to the Natural World of the Twin Cities has told us about a hillside with many showy orchis, Minnesota’s first orchid of the year, and we’ve come to the park in hopes of seeing them—wearing our masks and keeping at least six feet from other hikers and joggers along the wide paths.

On the path we pass nodding trillium, blue cohosh, and Jack-in-the-pulpit in bloom, and false Solomon’s seal just starting to bloom. And then we see them, more showy orchis than either of us together have seen in our lives so far, pink and white blossoms unfolding up flower stalks from a vase of smooth green leaves, the flower’s wide lower lip a perfect landing place for the queen bumblebees who visit them.  John’s book states that the showy orchis is the Twin Cities’ most common orchid, and looking up at all the flowers blooming or almost blooming on the hillside we’re inclined to agree.  But it’s also true that as habitat has declined, the numbers of showy orchis have declined, so this feels like a treasure trove of lovely, graceful flowers. The scientific name for showy orchis is Galearis spectabilis; spectabilis is Latin for remarkable, but I like to think it means spectacular, which is what these orchids are.

As a bonus we see a queen bumblebee investigating holes in the ground as she searches for a place to start this year’s colony after her solitary winter.  Even in the midst of a global pandemic, flowers bloom and bumblebees reproduce.  Maybe we, too, will endure.

The day begins with orchids, but we aren’t done chasing wildflowers yet.  The wetlands are beginning to green up and flower, so we head to two wetlands we know in Anoka County.  At the first one we find leaves we think are the very beginnings of some kind of orchid.  The leaves are so new we can’t be sure what kind or orchid it might be, but we will definitely come back in a few weeks to see it again. A cluster of small red leaves with last year’s dried flower stalks and little flowers makes us think it could be some sort of saxifrage, but we’ll need to come back for this one, too, once it blossoms, to be sure of what we’re seeing. We also find the leaves and tiny flowers of small white violet (appropriately named—we thought the thick colonies of leaves might be some kind of lichen until we spotted the tiny flowers), a new-to-us sighting.

One last stop at a nearby restored wetland reveals lance-leaved violet, marsh blue violet, more small white violets, and round-leaved sundew, an unexpected find.

When we are wildflower chasing, nothing else matters for the moment. Come look at this! What is it? Could it be…? Isn’t it beautiful? We know that the world is waiting for us when we return to the rest of our lives, but for now, absorbed in the sunshine, the discovery, the delight of flowers we know and flowers we are just now meeting, we are content.


A Lot Like Hope

May 9, 2020

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

Some days you wake up with hope.  Other days are harder, when all the uncertainties and sorrows of our coronavirus-infected world feel too heavy to lift, and you wake up just hoping for hope.  Saturday began as a hoping-for-hope day.

Then an unexpected window of time opened up to go wildflower searching, and we decided to run down to Zumbro Falls Woods Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) to see if the jeweled shooting stars were blooming yet.

Zumbro Falls Woods is so much more than jeweled shooting stars.  Its 430 acres contain so many native wildflowers we can hardly count them all. In the woods farthest from the top of the bluffs we found wood anemone, purple and yellow violets, spreading Jacob’s ladder in bud, and Virginia waterleaf leaves (no flowers yet) along the forest floor. Ferns unfurled and sessile-leaf bellwort gracefully drooped its sweet cream-colored flowers.

Heading over to the bluff where we’ve seen jeweled shooting stars in past years we passed rue-anemone, Dutchman’s breeches, and a whole colony of Mayapple, their leaves shiny as rained-slicked umbrellas. The first jeweled shooting stars we came to were still in bud, but as we followed along the bluff top we found first one, then another, then another jeweled shooting star that had opened like tiny rockets, their magenta flowers interspersed with the tall narrow stalks and lacy white flowers of Bishop’s cap.  By a moss-covered cliff we found even more jeweled shooting stars blissfully blooming along with wild ginger and a whole cluster of Jack-in-the-pulpit.

Down the bluff we went, in search of bluebells blooming,  past trout lily, wild blue phlox, and trillium leaves. And there they were, just opening their lovely blue bells in the midst of eastern false rue-anemone’s white flowers and a whole patch of pink spring beauty. Woodpeckers pecked, birds sang, breezes blew, and close at hand the river ran.

On a day that began as a hard sort of day, we wandered through a wealth of native wildflowers and felt something a whole lot like hope.

Not quite ready to be done, we made one more stop at Murphy-Hanrehan Park, where we’d been told that many showy orchis grew. We followed a trail down from the road, wandering off through the trees, circling back to the main trail careful to keep social distance from other folks enjoying the day. Rue-anemone, pink ones and white ones, dotted the ground, and a few bellwort bloomed, but nary an orchid could we find.  We didn’t mind—it was a fine day to just be in the woods, and there’s always another search ahead, another chance to find a flower that eludes us, this year or next or the one after that. Just as we were ready  to give up, we spotted a small cluster of showy orchis leaves, the buds nestled inside promising white and purple flowers in a few days.  Happy we had persisted, we headed for the car and spied another cluster getting ready to bloom.  This seems to be a theme with us—just when we’re ready to give up, the plants we’re searching for reveal themselves.  It doesn’t always work that way, of course, but often enough we have learned that persistence pays.

So does just being out in nature.