Stalking the Wild Milkweeds

November 18, 2022

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

Some folks keep bird lists, some folks want to visit every state park or hike the entire Superior trail or sample every Minnesota craft beer. We wanted to see all of Minnesota’s milkweeds, and a couple of years ago, we set out to do just that.

Minnesota lists fourteen species of milkweed, but the list shrank almost immediately to thirteen when we read that purple milkweed hasn’t been documented here for the past 125 year. The first few of the other thirteen were easy. 

Common milkweed is, well, common and can be found across the state in yards, in prairies, alongside roads, in dry places, damp places, sunny places, partly shaded places, edges of lakes, edges of woods.  It happily spreads its silky seeds to grow in even more places.

Butterfly-weed’s bright orange-to-red flowers were also easy to spot, blooming like a beacon in prairies such as Butternut Valley Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) and Schaefer Prairie, a Nature Conservancy site. 

We found swamp milkweed in swamps (of course) and many other wet places, its flowers a deep purple pink. Like common milkweed, it seems pretty ubiquitous here in Minnesota—we’ve spotted it in Blaine Wetlands, Roscoe Prairie SNA, and along the trail to Lake Bronson SNA among many other damper places.

Whorled milkweed on the other hand, inhabits drier places in the southern and western parts of the state.  We’ve seen its delicate white flowers at Kellogg Weaver Dunes SNA, Rushford Sand Barrens SNA, and in Lost Valley SNA as well as Carlos Avery Wildlife Management Area (WMA).

After those first few, things got a little more challenging.

We found green milkweed up on River Terrace Prairie SNA, the plant’s narrow leaves fooling us into thinking we might have found a new population of narrow-leaved milkweed (we hadn’t). Since then we’ve seen green milkweed, both the kind with narrow leaves and the wavy-leaved kind, on lots of prairie hillsides, including Pine Bend Bluffs SNA, Kasota Prairie SNA, and Bonanza Prairie SNA.

The real state-endangered narrow-leaved milkweed is known in Minnesota only from goat prairies in the southeast part of the state.  We’re happy to scramble up steep hillsides to admire our tiny Minnesota population, even though it turns out going up a goat prairie is a lot easier than coming down, especially if you don’t want to descend in a tumbling rush. 

Oval-leaf milkweed first caught our eye along the steps to the beach at a cabin at Blue Lake, which makes sense since it seems to prefer sandy places.  Even though the plant wasn’t blooming, it was hard to mistake the distinctive milkweed leaves.  Since then we’ve also seen it, among other places, along the path to Fish Lake at Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve.  

Poke milkweed eluded us for years, until we started seeing it seemingly everywhere, along trails and wooded roadsides, so many poke milkweed we began to wonder if it was stalking us.  Both Lake Louise State Park and Mille Lacs State Park provided an abundance of sightings.

State-threatened Sullivant’s milkweed was a challenge, looking a lot like common milkweed.  Sullivant’s milkweed leaves are smoother than common milkweed’s, almost rubbery, but even rubbing a lot of leaves left us slightly confused. Rubbery? Sort of rubbery?  The real clue came when we realized that Sullivant’s milkweed leaves tend to point up more than common milkweed leaves.  (We still like to rub the leaves just for the feel of them.) It’s a plant mostly of less-disturbed prairies in southern Minnesota.

Although woolly milkweed isn’t considered rare, it turned out to be a challenge, perhaps because it’s small and nestles low in the grass on sandy oak savannas. We’ve only ever seen it once in southeast Minnesota—and even when we knew where to look it wasn’t easy to spot.

If wooly milkweed is small, state-threatened clasping milkweed is more of a stand-out in the same sandy savanna habitat with its long, mostly leafless stem with a flower cluster on top that made us of think of a cross between a vintage light fixture and an alien. 

The last two milkweed were the most challenging of all, although showy milkweed turned out to be so distinctive we could spot it along the roadside as we drove past at 65 miles an hour (or so) on highway 71. We’ve also seen it at Schaefer Prairie Nature Conservancy site, but for us it’s been mainly a “Stop the car! I think I saw a showy!” kind of flower.

Last (and of course not least—how could any milkweed be least?) of the milkweeds we tracked down in Minnesota was the state-threatened prairie milkweed. We had despaired of seeing it in its single known Minnesota location, a 500-acre Wildlife Management Area (WMA), which felt like looking for a very tiny needle in a very large hayfield. This year, though, we did finally track it down and counted more than fifty prairie milkweed blooming.

How many miles have we chalked up chasing milkweeds? We don’t know, but we do know we’ll chalk up some more when we cross over into Wisconsin next summer in hope of seeing purple milkweed where it’s said to still grow. If we see it, you might hear us cheering loudly.  Then, we might even head off in search of a craft beer.

SEE MORE AND READ MORE about the milkweeds we’ve tracked down!

Gentian Blue

October 1, 2022

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

The trees are beginning to burn with color, mornings are cooler, the days shorter, the air crisper.  Even though prairies no longer burst with summer flowers, fall, too is fine prairie time. So on a day of cloud-streaked blue sky we head off to Oronoco Prairie Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) to see what we can find.

Grasses are what we notice first: big bluestem, little bluestem, hairy grama, sideoats grama, prairie dropseed looking like a yellow-green fountain of grass, Canada wild rye bending in the breeze. Fall-blooming heath asters and silky asters dot the grasses.

And down in the grasses a blue surprise: downy gentian and stiff gentian, both in bright and beautiful bloom.  

 Goldenrods, some gone to seed and some still in flower, offer us a chance to identify two more species—Great Plains goldenrod (euthamia gymnospermoides) and tall goldenrod (solidago altissima)—in our search to learn all eighteen of Minnesota’s goldenrods.

Most other flowers have gone to seed, but even the seeds fascinate. Whorled milkweed pods not yet open point upward like candles.  Butterflyweed pods release their silky strands, shimmeringly white in the sun. Rattlesnake master (a species of special concern in Minnesota at the northern edge of its range and one of six rare plants to grow here) shows its spiky brown seed heads, and the dark reddish-brown seed capsules of Great St. Johnswort open like dry petals.

Wandering along paths with the scent of mowed grass underfoot, we investigate a hill prairie we haven’t climbed before and find cylindric blazing star and rough blazing star gone to fuzzy, fluffy seed. A plant with bright orange round fruit turns out to be late horse gentian, although it belongs to a different genus than the blue gentians we are seeing.

It’s a splendid day to be out exploring this dry bedrock bluff prairie.  As we walk back toward the car we are already planning an earlier trip next year to catch some of these flowers in full bloom.  But for now we’re content with flowers gone to seed, goldenrods, gentians, grasses, and a wide prairie sky. 

Golden Day

September 25, 2022

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

Even before reaching the top of the hills at Yellow Bank Hills Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) at the far western edge of the state we are blasted by wind.  Wind bends the yellowing grasses into waves and tosses the field sagewort into a crazy dance party.  Wind frosts whitecaps on the lake on the western edge of the SNA. Dry grasses crunch underfoot, but the sound is almost drowned by the wind.

It’s a gorgeous day to be out on the prairie.

We’ve come here to try to track down velvety goldenrod (solidago mollis), a state special concern flower, listed as growing at this SNA in a small population at the very eastern edge of its range.  This fall we’ve been on the hunt for all of Minnesota’s eighteen goldenrods, which for years we’ve just clumped together as “Yep, that’s a solidago.” Now we’re determined to sort them out in all their golden glory, and what better time of year than September? We’ve already identified roughly half of the goldenrods, and a stop at Cedar Rock SNA on our way west has netted us Riddell’s goldenrod (solidago riddelli) with its long, narrow, beautifully arching leaves, past its prime but still clearly a Riddell’s. We’ve been to Yellow Bank Hills before in search of velvety goldenrod with no luck; this time we plan to search every bit of the SNA’s 78 acres or get swept away by the wind, whichever comes first.

Hills roll across the southern part of the SNA. Here and there a glacial erratic rock glitters beneath a covering of grey-green lichen. Flowers are mostly gone to seed, with a few purple and white asters still blooming along with the bright yellow of an occasional hairy false goldenaster.  Goldenrods are scattered around the southern end of the SNA, but none of them fits the clues for which we’re searching. We have plenty of clues: velvety goldenrod is short (6”-24”), is said to have has ovoid or blunt grey-green leaves, has usually lost its basal leaves by bloom time, and has dense hairs on its leaves and stem which have a velvety feel. Now all we need is a goldenrod that has read the same guidebooks we have.

Having scoured the southern end, we wander into the northern end, where seemingly endless goldenrods, many past prime, grow in the lower, moister areas.  Gauging height can be a challenge, since we frequently have to lift a wind-flattened goldenrod to see how tall it is.   We lift. We peer for blunt or ovoid grey-green stem leaves. We feel for velvety surfaces. All the while the wind whips our hair, pausing now and then as if to inhale, then blasting away again.  Wind is an integral part of prairie, but this feels like more wind than we’ve ever encountered before while flower chasing. 

After what seem like thousands and thousands of goldenrod perusals, we are almost on our way back to the car when we come upon a small population of goldenrods that looks just a little different from all the ones we’ve seen so far.  These plants are short, have grey-green leaves (although the tips look more pointed than blunt), and have softly hairy stems. Could this possibly be velvety goldenrod?

We have recently fallen in love (or at least serious like) with a cell phone app that gives its best guess at plants about which we are uncertain.  The app is sometimes right, sometimes not, sometimes so vague as to be unhelpful, but this time it confirms that we are looking at velvety goldenrod.  We’re still not completely convinced, but I take notes and GPS coordinates so we can return to this spot next year when the flowers are in full bloom. Kelly takes photographs.

A windy and sunny prairie is hard for photography, but I hold tightly to the sun diffuser screen (so it–and I– don’t blow away) and shade the plant while Kelly waits to click pictures when the wind to pauses.  Then, hopeful that we might have added another goldenrod to our growing list of ones we recognize, we head for the car and the long drive home.

Flowerchasing season is short, goldenrod season even shorter.  If we don’t find all eighteen goldenrods this year, there’s always next year, but finding what we think is velvety goldenrod makes us hopeful that we might, someday, find them all.

Yellow Bank Hills Prairie SNA
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