Winter Wildflower Chasing

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

December 21, 2020
Winter Solstice

A friend has loaned us the use of her condo for a few days, so close to the edge of Lake Superior that the waves crashing in look to wash us away. What do you do on the shortest days of the year in northern Minnesota?

Look for wildflowers.

We had no idea when we went for a hike in nearby Cascade River State Park that we would be looking down at the ground instead of out at the river flowing under and over the ice or up in the trees hoping to spot a great grey owl.  But the minute we recognized a dried up four-leaved plant  as a bunchberry, we were hooked.  Now every thin stem, crinkled leaf, or skeletal flower caught our attention. 

Next we found ghost pipe, its black stems and shriveled flowers growing in a cluster. Then the ghostly remains of starflower, Canada mayflower, and bluebead lily. A single seed pod on a thin stem turned out to be one-flowered pyrola.  We puzzled over a group of stems thick with downward-pointing seed pods and guessed it might be one of the coralroots.  Back at the condo we tentatively identified the plants as western spotted coralroot, an orchid we have yet to see in bloom, and we’re excited to come back in the spring to see if we are right.

The final find of the day was a group of orchid leaves that almost certainly belong to stemless lady’s-slipper orchids.  Footprints in the snow that headed off trail led us to the leaves, and we wondered who else could possibly be out searching for wildflowers in December. 

The day was perfect for winter wildflower spotting, with a thin layer of snow on the ground through which last year’s wildflower remains poked.  More snow sifted silently down around us, coating pine branches to look like waffles. 

We marveled at how many plants gone to seed we could recognize. We marveled, too, at how we were still looking for wildflowers in the last weeks of December.

The year turns toward the light. May your days be filled with light.

And with many native wildflowers.

What’s in a Name?

November 25, 2020

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

It’s been a tough year all around—pandemic, politics, the fight for racial justice.  One thing that’s made us glad, in the midst of it all, is searching for native wildflowers. We kept closer to home, took our own meals with us, avoided overnight stays, and only visited places where we might encounter few if any other people.

The season for wildflowers is over now.  It’s almost Thanksgiving, and snow has fallen again to cover the ground.  We’re still busy with wildflowers, catching up on all the information we’ve accumulated over the past eight months. We’re identifying Kelly’s photos of flowers that we didn’t recognize on sight, and I’m transcribing my lists of flowers seen from the scribbly notebook scrawls into a word document. It’s our winter work until March when the earliest wildflowers will reappear.

Typing in the names of flowers and my random notes of weather, animal sightings, birdcalls can transport me back to that particular day out in the field. Like magic incantations, just the names of particular flowers are enough to evoke time and place. 

Purple fringed orchid calls up an overcast day, perfect for photography.  We are driving through the 660 acres of Boot Lake Scientific and Natural Area (SNA).  The place feels vast, and we don’t even know where to begin.  At a T in the road we choose to go left (as it turns out, both arms of the T dead end quickly so we need to retrace our route) when a flash of purple at the roadside brings us to a braking halt. We pile out of the car—it’s our first (and as it turns out our only) sighting of a purple fringed orchid this year.  We crouch on the roadside, me holding back the grasses in front of the orchid, Kelly taking photos.  A lucky fork in the road.

Rough-seeded fameflower takes us back to a sandy hillside as the sun sinks low, cloaking the prairie in rich yellow light.  I’m admiring the brilliant flowers on a partridge pea when I hear Kelly chanting, “Same flower! Same flower! Same flower!”  “What’s the same flower?” I ask.  “More partridge pea?” “Fameflower!” she enunciates, and there are the small pink flowers we’ve been hoping to see all summer and that only open in the late light of day. Right place, right time.  

Downy gentian evokes an afternoon at Kasota Prairie SNA where sandhill cranes call, bees buzz, and the sunlight gleams on seeds spilling from milkweed pods. Alongside a path we find our first downy gentian of the year.  We crisscross the prairie, finding several more downy gentians blooming but none as pristine as the first sighting.  By the time we make our way back to that first flower for more photos, the sun has dropped in the sky, and to our surprise the flower has closed its petals.  Who knew that downy gentians were so connected to the strength of daylight?  We do, now. 

Hot prairie afternoons, rainy days in wetlands, canoe paddles on a floating bog lake—it all comes back to us with the sound of the names of flowers we’ve seen this past year. We’ve already got a wish list going for next year, when we hope to be on the far side of the pandemic. For this year, we’re grateful for flowers seen, new ones learned, and the hope we find in native wildflowers and the places they inhabit.

All of that in a name.  

Leaf Looking

November 1, 2020

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

Just when we think the wildflower season is over, another glorious day comes along–a bit windy, a little brisk (read: freezing), but with brilliant blue sky through leafless branches. Who could resist a trip to look for one last sign of wildflowers?

On the first of November we bundle up and drive to Mary Schmidt Crawford Woods Scientific and Natural Area (SNA), a 120-acre Big Woods remnant, to look for putty-root orchid leaves. The orchid itself blooms in May and June, but the leaves wither and disappear as the flower stalk begins to grow, while new leaves appear in the fall and overwinter. Finding those autumn leaves is a good way to mark where to look for the flowers in springtime.

We’d been given some advice from an expert about where to search in this SNA: along the side of the trail into the woods, where, as a bonus, we might also see autumn coral root done blooming. But when we arrive at the woods, the whole open forest floor is covered in leaves. Trail? What trail? Where?

So we do what we often do—we wander. Hepatica leaves, which will persist until spring, stand out on the forest floor. We find an odd-looking flower gone to seed that looks like something you’d hang on a Christmas tree, a small sphere of radiating spokes with tiny iridescent blue balls at the tips. Perhaps a sarsaparilla flower? A few spots smell suspiciously of skunk, and always the leaves rustle underfoot.

And then, among all the brown leaves on the ground, Kelly spots some still-green ones, crinkly and beautifully striped with white veins: putty-root orchid leaves. And then I find some, and then we find more. And still more. We’re beside ourselves with delight.

Autumn coral root? We never do see that, but we’ll look again when we come back next year to see putty-root and other spring flowers, and we’ll come earlier in the fall to search for autumn coral root blooming. For today we’re almost giddy to be out in the woods and sunshine, to forget for a while the stress of the wider world, and to find what we’d come to see: putty-root leaves.

For the first of November (or for any time) it is a splendid wildflower day.

P.S. Back home, a search reveals that we did indeed see wild sarsaparilla gone to seed, a new sight for us. The world is full of surprises.