We have always visited the woods in springtime for those early spring ephemerals that need to bloom before the trees leaf out. But we’ve learned that some flowers grow in the shade of trees throughout the summer because they don’t need sunshine—they have no chlorophyll to make their own food and depend on fungi and rotting debris to feed them.
One of these flowers is autumn coralroot. Like most of the coralroots it has no chlorophyll (early coralroot has a little chlorophyll in its stem but still needs fungi), so it can bloom even in deep shade. On an August evening we headed to a county park where almost all of the trees are virgin forest and where, thanks to a tip from a wildflower friend, we had seen autumn coralroot growing last September.
Maybe we were a week or so too early. Maybe this year the coralroot decided to wait out the drought—the ground was so hard it was easy to imagine plants underground with little jackhammers trying to break through. Whatever the reason, the only possible sign of autumn coralroot was a mowed-over brown patch of dried stems sticking a few inches out of the ground that might possibly have been last year’s autumn coralroot stems.
We did see lots of ghost pipe just emerging from the leaf litter, so white it seemed to glow. Like coralroot, ghost pipe has no chlorophyll—it, too, depends on fungi to feed it. Finding ghost pipe always feels like a treat, something pale and mysterious unfolding as it grows and looking, well, ghostly.
We were thrilled, too, to find zigzag goldenrod growing at the edge of the woods. This year we’re working on learning all of the goldenrods, and being able to identify zigzag brings our total of ones we’re sure of to four out of eighteen: zigzag, stiff, white upland, and grass-leaved. Only fourteen more to go.
The evening was still so hot that we dripped with sweat. Like ghost pipe and the ghost of autumn coralroot, we, too, were shade lovers, glad of the occasional breeze. And since we, too, have no chlorophyll, we were glad, to come across a weekly summer event in nearby Henderson, full of classic cars, folks enjoying the evening, and food trucks where we feasted before we headed home.
This year of intense drought has pushed some wildflowers ahead of their usual blooming times and left others so stressed they might not bloom at all this year. This weekend we set off to see how a few of the last flowers on this year’s wish list might be doing: pleated gentian, bog adder’s mouth, and velvety goldenrod. Since each blooms in a different habitat, we mapped a route up to Iron Springs Scientific and Natural Area (SNA), on toward Pembina Trail SNA, and finally down the western border to Yellow Bank Hills SNA.
We left Minneapolis in early morning coolness, but by the time we reached Iron Springs Bog SNA the day was beginning to heat up. Under the trees the air was still sweetly cool, and we made one last intense search for bog adder’s mouth, either blooming or gone to seed. We saw lots of green adder’s mouth gone to seed, a few one-flowered pyrola still blooming, lesser rattlesnake plantain gone to seed, tall northern bog orchid, northern green orchid, blunt-leaved orchid gone to seed, and one-sided pyrola gone to seed. But no matter how we scoured the hummocks of moss for the diminutive bog adder’s mouth (3 to 7 inches tall) we maintained our perfect record of not finding it no matter how hard we looked. Still, it was a lovely morning to be in a bog, the wind in the pine trees, a sense of moisture in the air, and a whole marshy area full of spotted Joe Pye weed blooming near the creek.
Our next stop was a wildlife management area (WMA) where several years ago we had seen western prairie fringed orchid in bloom. Although we knew we were well past the orchid’s bloom time, we wanted to verify its location. The roadside ditch where we’d spotted the orchid in past years was dry, and we couldn’t find a trace of even the orchid’s leaves. We did see kalm’s lobelia vigorously blooming its small cheery blue flowers alongside pale American grass of parnassus blossoms. Up on the WMA itself we found dried brown leaves that looked to be western prairie fringed orchid but no sign that the plants had flowered this year. We’ll be back earlier next year to see if the orchids survived this year’s drought. We hope so.
Up in the prairie we also found the distinctive leaves of bottle gentian, although the buds were so desiccated we doubted they would bloom at all this year.
Our last stop of the day was Pembina Trail SNA where we searched for more gentians, finding the leaves of some in a dry ditch with no blossoms. Places that looked like they had once been wetter now crackled under our feet as though the prairie had been burned. And in a way it has —even though the prairie evolved in sun and dryness and wind, this year has felt particularly brutal for many wildflowers. We ended the day feeling parched ourselves no matter how much water we drank.
Sunday as we headed south to Otter Tail Prairie SNA a distant line of rain fell from grey clouds giving us hope for more rain soon. The day had turned sunny by the time we reached Otter Tail Prairie, but the prairie itself was a welcome surprise. Even though ditches and depressions which had once been wetter were dry now, grasses were still green, and a blue bottle gentian beckoned from the roadside. We wandered the prairie hoping for pleated gentian, which is listed as growing there. We found lots of gentian, all bottle, some with dried up buds and blossoms but many blooming brightly. Pink prairie onion, purple northern plains blazing star, yellow goldenrods, pale blue asters, and the leaves of silvery scurfpea made a quilt of color in the long green grasses bending in the wind. Finding this greener (though still drier than usual) prairie made our hearts glad.
We had wondered how a dry hill prairie would do in a dry year, and walking across the brittle grass of Yellow Bank Hills SNA we couldn’t tell much difference from when we visited last September. We found dotted blazing star blooming along with blue vervain and lots of goldenrods. Although we didn’t identify the velvety goldenrod we were hoping for, we did figure out how to tell the difference between cutleaf ironplant and hairy false goldenaster, which at first glance can look similar to us: hairy false goldenaster has hairy lance-like leaves, while cutleaf ironplant’s leaves are divided into many smaller segments.
From green to dry to green to dry, it was a weekend mostly of prairies in a dry year. After 775 miles of driving, no bog adder’s mouth, no pleated gentian, no velvety goldenrod. But this year we’ve managed to check many other flowers off of our wish list, and we are already starting next year’s wish list. Even in a year of drought, as wildflower chasers we live in hope.
Some days the gods and goddesses of wildflower chasers smile, and some days they chortle behind their hands. This past Saturday we’re pretty sure they did both. What began as a short morning visit to places about an hour from home became an all–day three-hundred-mile round trip search.
In the morning the deities smiled on us. A brief stop at Falls Creek Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) led us to many blooming downy rattlesnake plantain orchids, making this a kind of hat trick in which we’ve seen all three rattlesnake plantain orchids–downy, lesser, and tessellated–blooming in a single week. Then, following directions that a friend had shared with us, we drove to a cedar swamp along the St. Croix River and walked very, very carefully across pieces of a slippery, tilty boardwalk hoping to find at least one club spur orchid blooming. The sound of running water flowed through the swamp, raindrops hung on pine needles like droplets on sundew, and we felt as though we’d been transported to a rain forest. Not only did we find one club spur orchid, we found many–some gone to seed, some on their way to seed, some still brightly blooming.
Kelly had gotten GPS coordinates for a place near Virginia, Minnesota, where we could look for northern slender ladies’-tresses, another of the orchids on our still-to-see list, and we talked about making a trip north soon to look for the orchids. When we realized we were already about halfway to Virginia it seemed like a slam-dunk to just keep on driving. Neither of us had anything planned for the rest of the day, and, after all, we did have coordinates. All we had to do was drive the rest of the way to Virginia, hike to the coordinates, photograph the orchid, and drive home in time for supper.
At this point the wildflower-chaser deities chortled, and they didn’t stop laughing until about nine o’clock that night when at last we arrived back at our homes. When we got to Virginia we parked on a road near the dropped pin on Kelly’s phone, then hiked past huge dumpsters to a padlocked gate and a tall chain link fence topped with barbed wire. Clearly not the way in. The second road we tried led us through a waste management facility into a woods, past a steep ravine, and eventually back to the same dumpsters and the same locked chain-link fence.
Stymied, we drove around on back roads trying to get closer to the coordinates, but as the digits of one number on our compass app moved closer to the pin coordinates, the digits of the other number moved farther away. Up and down the roads we drove, up and down the numbers went. Finally, hot, hungry, and frustrated, we stopped for a late lunch and decided to read the directions we’d been given more carefully. Oh, we said as we munched, look at that. The directions tell us exactly where to park and start hiking. What a good idea to read them! Ever hopeful, we headed out for one more try.
Sure enough, following the directions exactly instead of randomly chasing after coordinates led us along a trail, up a rough road, and into a world growing out of what seemed to be an enormous rock pile left over from earlier nearby mining operations. How long had these rocks been piled here for mosses and lichens to colonize them, plants to take root, trees to have time to grow? Wondering, we walked along a dusty, rocky, red dirt path through a fascinating forest unlike any we’d ever seen, following a series of pink ribbons tied to branches, sure they would lead us at last to the orchids we had come to see. Even though finding the orchids no longer felt like a slam-dunk, we agreed we would settle for a slow dribble down the court and an easy lay-up of an orchid find.
We did see orchids: a stemless lady’s-slipper gone to seed and a past-its-prime orchid that was either a spotted coralroot or a western spotted coralroot. We’ve been trying to learn to differentiate between the two based on the shape of the flower lip, and we debated, undecided if this was the rectangular lip of a spotted coralroot or simply a shriveled egg-shaped lip of western coralroot. We came down on the side of spotted coralroot.
We were still far from reaching the coordinates of the sought-after orchid, and time and energy were both fading. Finally we turned, retraced our way down the trail, and headed back to the cities through slanting evening light. We know we’ll come again to this strangely magical world, both to keep searching for the orchid and also to marvel at this red-rock habitat reclaiming itself on what feels like the top of the world.
All in a mad dash north, we had found a new place to explore, realized that we really needed to learn more about using GPS coordinates, and seen four different kinds of orchid, although not the one we’d driven north to see. The wildflower gods and goddesses might have been laughing all the way home, but then so were we.
[A fellow wildflower searcher later verified that it was spotted coralroot that we saw, so we’ve added it to our list of orchids seen. Thanks so much to knowledgeable and generous wildflower folks!]