Searching for Blue

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

September 16, 2018

On a day when the sunrise lit the pillowed clouds on fire and the sky was turning autumn-blue, we went looking for blue on the ground.  Fall is a time for trees aflame, but the prairie flaunts its colors, too, in the reds and browns and golds of grasses, the whites and blues of asters, the cheery yellow of many kinds of goldenrods, the angular blue blossoms of great blue lobelia. Blue blooms underfoot as well, hidden in the grasses.  Gentians, blue flowers of fall.

Minnesota has several kinds of gentians, and we were looking for four of the more common ones, hoping for at least a hat trick of species:  bottle gentian, fringed, gentian, stiff gentian, downy gentian.  We started at Oronoco Prairie Scientific and Natural Area (SNA), where we’d seen the downy gentians a few years before on the undisturbed part of the prairie, hoping, too, that we might see the federally endangered prairie bush clover we’d read grows in this SNA site. We wandered through the grasses, through flowers still blooming and those gone to seed, soaking up the prairie colors and breezes, but we did not spot any prairie bush clover nor could we find where we had once seen gentians blooming.  Had the grass grown too tall, the goldenrod or sumac too thick?  We didn’t know, but, hungry for gentians, we drove on south to Iron Horse SNA, where we’d also seen gentians in the past.

And here in the low areas near the old railroad embankment we found blue:  bottle gentians still in bloom and some going to seed, stiff gentians pointing their multitude of blossoms at the sky, small fringed gentians most of which had yet to open.  Great Plains ladies’ tresses still held onto a few white blossoms, swamp lousewort had gone to seed, and the spiky seed heads of rattlesnake master dotted the landscape.

No downy gentian (we have a few weeks yet to search), but a day rich in prairie and a gentian hat trick–sun-soaked, satiated, happy, we drove north toward home.

 

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

Cactus on the Rocks

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

August 10, 2018

Cactuses?  In Minnesota?

Yes. Three kinds of cactuses grow here, surviving by losing water in winter and plumping out again once warmer weather returns.  Plains prickly pear (Opuntia macrorhiza) is the one we’ve seen most often, but we’ve also found brittle prickly pear (Opuntia fragilis) growing in Quarry Park near Saint Cloud.

Ball cactus (Escobaria vivipara), Minnesota’s third kind of cactus and one of its rarest plants, grows only on granite outcrops in the western part of the state at the eastern edge of its range. On a hot, sunny day we set out to see if we could find it.

Rock outcrops abound in western Minnesota, but the ball cactus grows in an area of only a few square miles, and we thought we had a good idea of where to look for it.  For hours we climbed rocks exposed when glacial Lake Agassiz washed over the area, peered down into cracks, and saw more brittle prickly pear than we could have imagined.  The photos we’d seen of ball cactus all showed the plant covered with a brilliant magenta bloom, but none showed the shape of a non-blooming cactus, and we were at least one month too late to see the vivid flowers. We looked hopefully at the small, roundish ends of young brittle prickly pear.  Could this be a ball shape?  Or this?  Or this? No, no, and no.

The sun beat down, birds called, and we scrambled and clambered over outcrop after outcrop, careful where we put our feet.  Finally, sun-soaked and sweat-drenched, we phoned a knowledgeable acquaintance pleading for more specific information.  He directed us to the first small outcrop we’d driven past, intent on the larger outcrops looming ahead.  Now we walked gingerly over the flattish rocks and within a minute spotted perfectly round little cactuses with radiating bursts of spines, beautifully geometric and unmistakably ball-shaped. A few grew individually, but many grew in clusters like round prickly pillows.

Kelly took photo after photo while we marveled at the sight of this small, rare plant that persists and survives in cracks of Minnesota rock. We’re glad we persisted, too, and we’re also glad for folks who know more than we do and are willing to point us in the right direction (thank you, Scott). We’ll be back next June to look for the cactuses blooming which should make them much easier to spot, but meanwhile, we’ll savor the sight of these small exquisite cactuses at the end of a long day. Sunshine, rocks, prairie breezes, and a successful search—only one more thing would make the day complete.

We set off to find something cold to drink.

It Really Does Bloom!

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

August 5, 2018
For years we’ve been convinced that if downy rattlesnake plantain orchid really does bloom (and not just go directly from bud to seed pod), it must do so between 12 a.m. and 12:03 a.m. on a single night in alternate leap years.  Maybe.

A few summers ago, determined to catch it flowering, we made frequent trips north to Falls Creek Scientific and Natural Area where we’d seen the distinctive leaves of this orchid.  Our searches went something like this:
Buds
Buds
Buds
Buds
Seeds

Then we saw a post online with an actual photo of downy rattlesnake plantain at a different location blooming. Sure, we thought, it might bloom there, but the ones we’ve been watching don’t bloom.  Ever. But we live in hope, and it was a lovely day for a walk in the woods, so we headed north to Falls Creek.

Rain had fallen the night before, but the sun was out, and the light fell green through the trees, with pockets of sun piercing the canopy.  Even the air smelled green and fresh. As we hiked, we noted the leaves of many spring flowers—starflower, bloodroot, Solomon’s seal, Jack-in-the-pulpit, Canadian wild ginger– and promised ourselves to come back in the spring. As we hiked farther from where we had parked the traffic noise fell away, and we heard the sweet sound of the creek below us, where mist rose from the water like a mystical, magical morning of another world.

And there, along the path, we saw what we had thought might be a botanical myth:  downy rattlesnake plantain in full bloom, a single bright spike with small white flowers along its length. As we continued down the path, we saw another, and another, and another.  Indian pipe, a plant with no chlorophyll of its own, shone white on the forest floor.

South of Falls Creek, we stopped at Afton State Park for a walk in the restored prairie, where compass plant, wild bergamot, prairie ironweed, coneflower, blue vervain, milkweed, spotted Joe-pye weed, rattlesnake master, stiff goldenrod, prairie onion, and rough blazing star were in full bloom.  Yellow seeds on Indian grass quivered in the breeze like rows of tiny flags flying.  And there, on a wild bergamot flower, we saw an unfamiliar butterfly with a wingspan as wide as my hand.  Later we learned that it was a giant swallowtail. We also read on an interpretive sign the best definition we’ve seen yet of native plants: “native plants naturally occur in the place where they evolved.”

A day filled with native flowers in forest and prairie, with lesser rattlesnake plantain orchid in bloom, and with a giant swallowtail butterfly.  A good day to be out.

Phyllis Root, author
Kelly Povo, photographer