Tiny Treasures on the Rocks

April 10, 2021

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

Morton Outcrops Scientific and Natural Area rises up rounded and knobbly from the highway.  These rocks, made of Morton gneiss, are over 3 billion years old, some of the oldest rocks in the world. In places the rock itself looks as though it had flowed like water, with swirling bands of pink and white and gray. A rocky habitat might not seem the ideal place to look for wildflowers, but between 150 and 200 species of native plants have been documented in these 15 acres, many finding a roothold in the cracks and crevices of the rocks.  

We’ve come to these outcrops, rounded by glacial outwash river water and pocketed with potholes and pools, to look for one of Minnesota’s tiniest wildflowers, western rock jasmine. It doesn’t take us long to find clusters of the tiny plant, thanks to a knowledgeable friend who’s told us where to look.  Without his help it would have been easy for us to overlook a plant less than an inch tall with flower stalks that look like the ribs of an upside down umbrella. True to its name, western rock jasmine grows on the edges of rocky places.  It’s an earlier bloomer, but we are still too early to see it blooming. Just finding the plants in bud, though, delights us.

We’re on the hunt for other uncommon wildflowers as well, ones that grow mainly in this habitat of rocks dotted with pools and clumps of moss in shades of green.  We find the segmented leaves of Carolina cranesbill, another rock outcrop inhabitant that will bloom in June.  Among the distinctive lobed leaves of Caroline anemone we find a single flower, already blooming. 

Finding northern Idaho biscuitroot takes us longer, but we are happy crisscrossing the rocks, peering into crevices, trying to distinguish biscuitroot’s blue-green ferny looking leaves among last year’s dead grasses.  We find scattered leaves and a single blossom whose leaves have been eaten away but no plant with both leaves and flowers.  Then, in one corner of the rocks, we stumble across clusters of leaves, many blooming, others almost done blooming, and declare this the mother lode of northern Idaho biscuitroot, at least for this day in this amazing place.

Today, under a cloudy sky with a cool breeze blowing the scent of spring around us, we are thrilled with the tiny treasures we have seen.

A few miles down the road along the Minnesota River is Cedar Rock SNA adjacent to Cedar Rock Wildlife Management Area (WMA). The website lists rock outcrops at the SNA, so, giddy with success and already in love with outcrops, we decide to stop briefly before heading home. We park by the WMA and set off across a piece of prairie toward where we think the river and possible outcrops might be, but halfway across the prairie we veer away toward a glimpse of rocks to see what they might hold.

At the top of a small hill on a spreading outcrop we find ourselves staring at more prickly pear cactus than we ever seen before, growing like small, spiky headstones on the rocks and in the grass—at least a hundred of them.  We tread carefully—there are few places that don’t have one of the prickly pear pads protruding—and find the leaves of Carolina cranesbill along with northern Idaho biscuitroot blooming.  In a small indentation of the rocks a tiny dot of yellow whitlow-grass blooms, hardly bigger than western rock jasmine.

We went to Morton outcrops in search of specific flowers and plants, but we love, too, this kind of chance discovery, unlooked for and amazing. 

We’re not ready today to take the long hike through the WMA to the SNA, so we decide to drive along the road that borders them just to see what me might find when we return, which we promise ourselves we will do.  A river separates the road from the SNA so we can’t reach it from the road without wading across (something we’ve done in other small rivers and creeks but not today and not in this swift-looking current).  Along the road we discover another delight, delicate purple pasque flowers blooming in the grassy shoulder. We’ve seen pasque flowers before, but never this roadside surprise.  

Who could stop now?  Not us.  Driving on, we find and follow a narrow trail that leads up a hill through woods and down toward the little river.  More delights:  scattered bloodroot and anemone along with ramps growing under the trees.

Finally we head home, saturated with a day of flower chasing, from tiny treasures to unexpected cactus to roadside surprises.  We can’t imagine a better way to spend a day.

Suddenly, Spring!

April 5, 2021

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

Every year spring returns, and we relearn its language.

Every year we are so eager to look for wildflowers that we go out while snow still covers the ground. Skunk cabbage blooms happily through the snow, as, at times, do pasque flowers and snow trilliums, but when the early woodland flowers start to bud and bloom in the thawed-out earth we’re certain spring has returned.  Monday, after a weekend of temperatures in the seventies, we saw spring opening around us.  

Because the early woodland flowers have such a short time in the sun before deciduous trees leaf out and cover up the sunlight, we headed to Nerstrand Woods State Park, a remnant of the Big Woods that once covered much more of Minnesota.  Much of the ground was covered in last year’s brown leaves, but bright white bloodroot bloomed in scattered places along with hepatica’s pale white and purple and pink clusters of blossoms.

Along one side of the trail we found the beginnings of wood betony, small frilled scarlet clumps of leaves that will later unfurl, turn green, and bear yellow flowers. More native wildflowers were already budding, often with a bloom or two, and in a few more warm days the forest floor will be covered in places with false rue anemone, Virginia spring beauty, marsh marigolds, cutleaf toothwort and Dutchman’s breeches. Speckled trout lily leaves sprouted like whiskers on dry patches of ground. On a hillside covered with trout lily leaves we found a few trout lilies with small buds tucked between their two leaves. (Trout lilies only bloom once they have developed two leaves, so all the one-leaved trout lilies we saw won’t be blooming this year.)

This year we are on a search to find flowers we haven’t yet seen, but we also need to see familiar flower faces, the ones that welcome every flower-finding season, so we drove to a hillside farther down the road where snow trilliums briefly and elegantly bloom.  And bloom they did, more than we remember ever seeing.  Among the blooming plants were many other three-leaved plants that were neither blooming nor in bud, which made us wonder about how snow trilliums reproduce.  Are these next year’s flowers, or the year’s after that?  One of the things we love about wildflower chasing is how much we learn, and clearly we have lots more learning to do.

The sun shone, breezes blew, birds called, and we hiked into a spring day that seemed, like a time-lapse movie, to be opening around us as we walked. A day to make our hearts happy and know that, once again, seemingly suddenly, spring is here.

Tiniest Beginnings of Spring

March 13, 2021

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

A year ago on March 8 we gave what turned out to be our last in-person talk of 2020 about wildflower chasing (we didn’t know then how covid would shut things down). Then, because the day was gorgeous, we went out and found skunk cabbage, the earliest wildflower, blooming.

This year, on March 13, we gave our first wildflower chasing talk of the year for the St. Croix Valley Master Gardeners Association via Zoom and YouTube. Then, because the day was gorgeous and skunk cabbage had already been spotted blooming, we went out looking for the next early wildflowers and found the tiniest beginnings of snow trillium and pasqueflower.

Lots of rain and warmth had melted away the snow cover of a week ago, and tiny shoots from a 1/16th of an inch to ½ an inch were poking through the ground on a wooded slope where snow trilliums grow. Knowing how fast snow trilliums crop up and ephemerally vanish again, we’ll be making at least a few more trips to make sure we don’t miss their elegant white blooms. Last year’s hepatica leaves, purply red, were also making their appearance from where the snow had hidden them over the winter. Soon enough their pale blue flowers, too, will open against the brown leaf cover of last year’s deciduous trees.

Farther along the road on a sand dune we found the first little brown buds of furry pasqueflowers almost hidden in their dried nests of last year’s leaves. When they open, like graceful prairie crocuses, we’ll be back to bask in their loveliness.

A high blue sky arched overhead, and the fresh scent of recent rain and melting snow promised a very welcome spring. Add to those the opportunity to talk with fellow wildflower lovers about our shared passion, and we couldn’t be happier.

Tomorrow the forecasts threatens snow, but we don’t care.  

Winter is crumbling.  Spring is just beginning. 

We’re ready.