A Prairie Fourth of July

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

July 4, 2019

From the road, McKnight Prairie, an outlier of the Carleton Arboretum, looks like nothing more than two green hills set down amid farm fields. But, we weren’t even halfway up the first hill before I’d filled a page of field notes of flowers seen, among them Canada milkvetch, prairie phlox, clammy ground cherry, wild four o’clock, and pale lobelia.

The list just grew longer at the top of the hill with leadplant, prairie rose, larkspur, showy tick trefoil, and white prairie clover.  At the very peak of the first hill the beautifully orange butterfly-weed appeared, with plants scattered down the hillside and into the far field, where they mixed with yellow black-eyed Susan and coreopsis and white yarrow and daisy fleabane in a crazy quilt of colors.

Halfway up the second hill in a sandy blowout we found plains prickly pear cactus.  We had come with high hopes that the plants would be in bloom, and we found pale papery yellow blossoms perched on top of spiked pads just opening in the sunshine.  Many buds looked to open soon.  Hoots and high fives—our last trip to western Minnesota to see ball cactus blooming wasn’t a success, but here, closer to home, plains prickly pear flowers made us very happy.

A month or so ago these hillsides were covered with swaths of kittentail, prairie smoke, and violets. Now only leaves and seed heads showed where these early spring flowers had bloomed. Every day the prairie makes itself anew, and we will come back in a week or two to see what new treasures it offers.

On the way home we detoured to River Terrace Prairie Scientific and Natural Area, a place we’ve only ever visited in early spring for the pasqueflower and kittentail that grow there.

Here, too, the prairie had remade itself, with scatterings of harebells, spikes of larkspur, and bright bursts of puccoon. Whorled milkweed was about to bloom, kittentail had gone to seed, and in the middle of the path we found a milkweed we’d never seen before and identified as green milkweed with flowers just about to open.  Here, too, we’ll return to see the milkweeds in flower and any other surprises this hillside prairie holds.

On the hike back to the car what looked like a great spangled fritillary butterfly fluttered past us.  Two prairies, blooming cactus, a new-to-us milkweed–what better way to celebrate a spangled fourth of July?

Please note: McKnight is a fragile prairie site, carefully maintained and restored so everyone can learn about and appreciate prairies.  And, although it is open to the public, please be attentive to where you step and stay on the path!  Groups of ten or more need to register their visits here. Collecting of any plant or animal, including seeds, is strictly prohibited. Protect native wildflowers and McKnight Prairie!

A note from the Puzak Family Director of the Cowling Arboretum: please avoid entering the sandy areas where the soil and small plants and animals are especially fragile. Pets are not allowed at McKnight Prairie. While a simple footpath exists at McKnight, is is not mowed or maintained. We also encourage you  to visit the prairie and forest restorations at the Carleton College Arboretum in Northfield where many prairie species can be seen. There are 15 miles of maintained trail that provide ample opportunity for many nature observations. The Arboretum is open every day dawn to dusk at no charge.


A Mad Dash West

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

June 16, 2019

Have you ever driven three hours one way just in the hope of seeing a ball cactus in bloom?

We have.

After a phone call confirmed that ball cactus might be blooming in Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge near the South Dakota border, Kelly and I jumped in the car to find out for ourselves–never mind that we’d just gotten back from a 600 mile searching-for-wildflowers road trip up north.

We’d seen ball cactus, one of the state’s rarest plants, for the first time last year long past its bloom time, and seeing it with its magenta flowers open was high on our wish list for this year.

Three hours later we arrived at the refuge and drove straight to the rock outcrops where ball cactus grows.  The beautifully round little cactuses with their tessellated spines did indeed have pinkish protrusions that might either have been blossoms already finished blooming or buds just about to bloom. Were we too early or too late?  After studying all the cactuses we could find, we decided we were just a few days too early—the edges of many buds showed the bright-colored petals beginning to protrude.

Even though we didn’t actually see ball cactus in full bloom, we saw so much else. Brittle cactus grew in abundance on the rocks, and the surrounding tall grass prairie was abloom with spiderwort, larkspur, prairie alumroot, narrow-leaved bluet, yarrow, prairie rose, hairy false goldenaster, slender beardtongue, and prairie cinquefoil.

We wandered on top of rocky outcrops under the vast prairie sky, a cool wind blowing, feeling as though we were standing in the middle of a world made right by wind and sky and the promise of cactus flowers.

Next year’s wish list: we’ll try again, but we don’t regret this mad dash to try to see ball cactus blooming.  The prairie filled our hearts.

And after all, what are wish lists for but to wish on?

Brilliant Spots of Color

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

June 15, 2019

Winter’s white is long gone (well, not that long—this is Minnesota), and now the world is awash in green. Trees have leafed out, the ephemerals are mostly finished, and some of the greenest places we’re visiting now are forests and bogs.  Many of the flowers we’re seeing are white or pale yellow, so spots of brilliant color catch our eye.

On our early morning walk to the Bemidji State Park boardwalk we passed under arching trees and past many, many sarsaparilla, their lacy white ball-shaped blossoms like so many Christmas ornaments beside the path.  White starflowers, white pussytoes going to seed, white bastard toadflax, white bunchberry blossoms, pale yellow lousewort, and soft yellow bluebead lily all lined the trail.

When we reached the boardwalk we found Labrador tea, cotton grass, and three-leaf false Solomon’s seal all blooming white against the mossy greens.  A few last marsh marigolds made bright blurts of yellow in watery places, and deep pink stemless lady’s slippers bowed gracefully on what look like tall stems but are actually flower stalks. Dark maroon pitcher plant flowers rose on long stalks, but what really caught our attention was the bright magenta of dragon’s mouth orchids almost hidden in the moss.  Farther along the boardwalk, several more dragon’s mouths were either in bloom or about to bloom—glorious little punctuation marks that made us hoot with joy.

Under a cathedral of tall, tall trees in the Lost Forty Scientific and Natural area we found more bits of brightness: stemless lady’s slippers, small gaywings with their purple and bright pink blossoms, the tiny pink bells of rose twisted stalks.  On the forest floor, under past years’ pine needles, Kelly found the seed stalk and leaves of lesser rattlesnake plantain—not a vivid color, but certainly a vivid little leaf pattern.

Still hungry for bright colors, we ended the day canoeing around Long Lake where a floating bog surrounds the shore.  It wasn’t long before we spotted one dragon’s mouth, then another, then several, then a whole cluster of at least 16 dragon’s mouths. Around the bog edge blue flag, pale pink bog rosemary, white wild calla, and tiny reddish sundew all bloomed while pitcher plants blossoms so shiny they looked polished rose up above the moss. Even though some raindrops fell and mosquitoes occasionally buzzed us, we didn’t care, happy to be on the water and grateful for the sight of so many dragon’s mouths blooming their brief time of brilliance in the bog.

Check out Phyllis’s new children’s book on the Lost Forty: The Lost Forest

A Step Worth Taking

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

June 14, 2019

In the hurly burly of daily life, it’s hard for us sometimes to remember to step away from it all, but we’ve learned that it’s always a step worth taking.  In the midst of our busy summers, Kelly and I took to the road to visit some of our favorite places.  On the way we stopped briefly at Quarry Park near Saint Cloud to check out the brittle cactus. No blooms yet, but a nice prickly little colony turning green.

We stopped again in Park Rapids at one of our favorite independent bookstores, Beagle and Wolf, to sign some of our books.  (I’ll be back again on July 6 for another book signing.) Then we headed to Itasca State Park for some serious wildflower searching.

We had barely entered the park when alongside the road we spied yellow lady’s-slippers, both the large ones and the small ones.  While we can’t always tell which is which by flower size, it helps us to remember that the small, have darker twisty side petals.  In the Itasca Wilderness Sanctuary Scientific and Natural Area we had barely begun hiking the Bohall Lake trail before we scrambled into our bug shirts which we had prudently brought along. The rest of the hike was accompanied by the high pitched hum of frustrated mosquitoes, but we didn’t care, too busy looking at the most pristine sarsaparilla flowers we had ever seen, along with starflower, Canada mayflower, bunchberry, rose twisted stalk, starry false Solomon’s seal, and blue bead lilies with flowering stalks as tall as my knee.  Under the green trees among the flowers alongside Bohall Lake all the concerns of our day jobs and busy lives fell away.  Just birdsong and quiet under the tall trees.

A short drive away at Iron Springs Bog Scientific and Natural Area we weren’t even out of the car before we saw our first orchid. Although it wasn’t yet flowering, we tentatively identified it as a tubercled rein orchid—when a plant isn’t blooming, our identifications skills definitely drop. In the bog itself buckbean and three-leaf false Solomon’s seal grew so thickly they looked like little rivers of flowers in the mossy ground. We found naked miterwort, moccasin flower, early coral root, and small round-leaved orchid which was just coming into polka-dotted bloom. Bogs are easy places to get lost (we’ve done it here before), but luckily Kelly’s new GPS actually worked and led us back to our car.

At one last stop at an unnamed roadside bog most of the ram’s head orchids had already gone to seed, but we found a few still blooming and were grateful for these exquisite flowers.   Tall showy lady’s slipper leaves promised an abundance of beauty in a week or two, although we don’t know if we’ll be here to see them bloom.

No matter—just knowing there are wild places and being lucky enough to visit them makes our hearts glad.


From spring into summer

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

June 1, 2019

Last week we headed north searching for spring, which was just making its wildflower way up the north shore.  This week we headed south on a hot and sunny day for what we thought would be the tail end of spring along the Mississippi River.

Many of the earliest  flowers were done blooming, but large-flowered trilliums were just turning pink under the leafed-out  trees, and drooping trilliums still showed white.  High on a hillside several showy orchis looked very showy.  Some May apples had already set seeds, but others were blooming brightly under their umbrellas of leaves.  White spikes of miterwort poked up everywhere.  Alongside the road Kelly found a new-to-us-in-the-wild plant, twinleaf, also already gone to seed.  Next year, we vowed, we’d come earlier to see its white-petaled flowers.

Friday night it rained, first distant lightning, then a rush of wind that bent the trees, then raindrops pattering on the rooftop. Driving home Saturday, we passed the same road we’d been down the day before and decided to take one last quick drive along it. Trees arched overhead, and the rain saturated everything so that even the air looked green. On a thickly wooded hillside we found another new-to-us flower, golden ragwort. Our quick drive turned into a slow one with many stops. When we turned down another road we’d never been on before, we found ourselves stopping again and again–a whole hillside of drooping trillium, a gigantic smooth Solomon’s seal, a slope of lousewort, and another new-to-us plant that looked like daisy fleabane with larger flowers that we identified as Robin’s plantain.

Even then, we didn’t make it home anywhere near our intended early hour.  We were passing so near Grey Clouds Dunes that one quick hike to check out this sand prairie seemed like a fine idea.  And it was.  Bright clusters of puccoon and fringed puccoon stood out against the sand, pussytoes lifted their gone-to-seed flowers on long stalks, and the leaves we had tentatively identified in a March visit as prairie smoke turned out to be exactly that, some still blooming, some gone to long seedy tendrils blowing gracefully in the breeze.  We found ground plum with hard little fruits, large-flowered penstemmon budding, blue eyed grass, spiderwort, and a whole scooped-out hillside of bird’s foot violet, now past their time but surely spectacular a few days before.

Our early morning planned arrival home had become a mid-afternoon return. In a single morning we had travelled from spring in the woods to summer claiming the prairie, and if we had passed another place to explore we would surely have stopped.  Who knows what else we might have seen?

Luckily we have a whole summer ahead of us to find out.

Magical Morning

May 25, 2019
Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

In life, as in wildflower searching, unlooked-for delights sometimes take us by surprise.  Friday night, after a day of searching along the North Shore, Kelly got a Google alert and discovered that our editor at the University of Minnesota Press had been on KARE 11 TV talking about several books they had published, including our wildflower book and a new picture book of Phyllis’s, The Lost Forest. What a treat!

Today we headed back to Gooseberry Falls State Park to give a wildflower talk and record an audio postcard for Minnesota Public Radio about arctic relicts growing along the north shore of Lake Superior.  Arctic relicts are plants that found a foothold in the cold, harsh, rocky shore as the last glaciers retreated. There they persist, far from other plants of their kind growing much farther north.

The morning was magical—mist on the lake, spider webs strung with luminous dots of moisture, the water in the rock pools along the shore silver in the morning light.  Chorus frogs croaked in their small pools, waves splashed on the rocks, and we felt incredibly lucky to be in this place at this moment.

After our talk at the visitor’s center and a short walk to see bird’s eye primrose and common butterwort with the folks who had come to the talk, we headed home, making one last stop at Jay Cooke State Park to check out what was blooming there.  We followed a trail up into a woods full of flowers: spring beauty, large-flowered bellwort, yellow trout lilies, more sessile-leaf bellwort than we’d ever seen in one place. We even found a new-to-us flower that we tentatively identified as dwarf wild ginseng (although we’ve made this identification of another plant once before and turned out to be mistaken).  Mistaken or not, it is always a thrill to see something we haven’t seen before.

And even though you might think people couldn’t get lost on the well-marked trails of a state park, we did.  We finally managed to find our muddy way back to the swinging bridge across the St. Louis River, which was in full, roaring flood. We headed home filled with four days of native wildflowers, an abundance of time spent in forests, a resolution to always take a trail map with us no matter what, and gratitude for all the signs of second spring we found in the north country.

The Edge of Spring

May 24, 2019

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

We’ve fulfilled all of our commitments for our book until Saturday morning at Gooseberry Falls State Park, where we’ll give a wildflower talk and go on a wildflower walk.  Today is a day dedicated to more wildflower searching up the north shore, hopeful against the forecast of rain.

Marsh marigolds beam from roadside ditches and wet patches of ground, and Canada mayflower leaves dot the forest floor along the highway.  But the farther north we drive, the more we feel we have left the blooming edge of spring behind.  By the time we reach Tettegouche State Park where a naturalist assures us we’ll find wildflowers everywhere, it’s clear that while we find the leaves of bluebead lily, Canada mayflower, and last year’s bunchberry the flowers themselves are biding their time, perhaps waiting for the temperature to climb out of the low forties or for the sun to shine down on them.

Even though we don’t see flowers at Tettegouche, our hike up the Cascade trail takes us past the Baptism river in full flood, water rolling and roiling over rocks in foaming waves that even an expert kayaker might balk at. We hike back to the car and head for our Two Harbors hotel. Unable to resist, we make one last quick stop at Gooseberry Falls State Park to check on arctic relicts.

And there along the rocky shore in driving, bitterly cold rain we find bird’s eye primrose flowers, more than we’ve ever seen before.  It’s way too windy and wet for Kelly to bring out her camera, but she braves the piercing wind and rain to take a phone shot of these determined flowers. Not only do the bird’s-eye primrose not mind the weather, they seem to flourish in it while we lesser humans run for the car.

Tomorrow we hope for sunshine and more flowers, but for today, the tiny pink bird’s eye primrose blossoms gladden our hearts.