A Walk in Wood-Rill Woods

April 24, 2021

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

Barely half an hour west of the Twin Cities near Long Lake, Minnesota, lie 141 acres of woodland with trees up to 400 years old.  Wood-Rill Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) is a piece of the Big Woods which once covered 5000 square miles of Minnesota. Like many other Big Woods remnants, native wildflowers bloom here in spring, and on a chilly, overcast day we set out to find them.

Several paths wind up and over the hills of this SNA (most SNAs are pathless), and along one of the trails we came across an explosion of yellow:  our first marsh marigolds of the year, blooming brightly in a wet area crossed by a wood plank.  Not far away we found another first of the year:  the first Jack-in-the-pulpit plants, from tiny shoots to ones where Jack had already appeared in the pulpit to ones where the leaves themselves, which follow the flowers and look very much like trillium leaves, were emerging.  We wandered among so many Jack-in-the-pulpit it felt like we should put our feet in our pockets, as my grandma used to say when we walked across her freshly washed floors, so as not to step on any small ones.

Marsh marigold and Jack-in-the-pulpit— two firsts of the year—delighted us, but as we wandered the paths we saw more and more spring flowers. The prize for abundance went to bloodroot—many done blooming but others still opening their white-petaled flowers and shawl-like leaves, often blooming in bunches like flowered skirts around the bases of trees.  

Both large-flowered Bellwort leaves and also sessile-leaved bellwort leaves were gracefully unfolding, and as the afternoon wore on and the sun claimed the sky several yellow large-flowered bellwort flowers drooped their blossoms down into the afternoon light. A few trilliums, both large-flowered and nodding, already had buds. 

Red columbine budded, Canadian wild ginger’s dark red flowers hid under their unfolding fuzzy leaves, two rue anemone bloomed pink, and one downy yellow violet showed bright against last year’s forest leaves.

A barred owl called who cooks for you who cooks for you, a woodpecker made its rattling way up a tree, and the late sun lit the high canopy of lacy new leaves so that they shone with their own yellow-green radiance against blue sky. A day that began chilly, breezy, and overcast turned into a splendid spring walk in woods close to home that we are glad to have found.

From the Prairie to the Forest

April 18, 2021

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

We have yet to see a spring or a creek at Spring Creek Prairie Scientific and Natural Area (SNA), but there is so much else to see there, even in mid-April when prairie flowers are just awakening.  To get to the prairie we followed a maze of street directions to the parking area of the SNA, then walked along a path under leafing trees until we came out under a sweep of sky overhead and a steep hillside stretching down, down, down.  At first glance the hillside seemed to hold only last year’s dried grasses.  Then we found a small prairie violet blooming and one small white petaled flower, then another, and another.  Was it Carolina whitlow-grass with its tiny basal leaves? But some plants had stem leaves as well.  Could it be lyre-leaved rock cress instead?  Or were we looking at both kinds of plant scattered over the gravelly, sandy hillside?  We definitely need another visit to verify which one we saw or whether both are blooming there together.

The path continued up toward a high bluff where pasqueflowers had bloomed and gone to seed with a few still blooming.  We passed prairie smoke budding along with a few budding bastard toadflax, a puccoon just opening its vivid yellow flowers, and the smallest pussytoes we’ve ever seen. From the top of the bluff with a spring breeze blowing under a wide sky, we felt as though we were on top of the world.

We’ll definitely be back, not only to verify our Carolina whitlow-grass/lyre-leaved rock cress question but to find out, too, what other flowers these hillsides hold as spring turns into summer. Who knows? We might even find a spring or a creek or both.  

Leaving prairie for another day, we drove to a rustic road in Wisconsin where ephemerals and other spring woodland flowers cover the hillsides. The hillsides themselves are posted with no trespassing signs, but luckily the flowers bloom all the way down to the road, so we could walk along the edge of the road and see them all. Virginia spring beauty sprinkled the hillsides, and patches of false rue anemone’s white flowers shimmered and shivered in the slightest breeze. Hepatica flowered joyfully, singly and in bunches like delicate bouquets.  Cutleaf toothwort, white and yellow trout lilies, and Dutchman’s breeches dotted the hills, trillium and large-flowered bellwort budded, and the elusive squirrel corn was almost in bloom.  Canadian wild ginger unfolded leaves, and a bright little conglomeration of yellow violet and buttercup brightened the base of a tree. 

So many more roadside wonders will be flowering in next few weeks until the trees fill in and block the sunlight.  Here, too, we’ll return when we can for the brief and glorious springtime woods.  

Prairie and forest—the land wakes up to spring, and in these difficult days we are so grateful for their awakening.

Tiny Treasures on the Rocks

April 10, 2021

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

Morton Outcrops Scientific and Natural Area rises up rounded and knobbly from the highway.  These rocks, made of Morton gneiss, are over 3 billion years old, some of the oldest rocks in the world. In places the rock itself looks as though it had flowed like water, with swirling bands of pink and white and gray. A rocky habitat might not seem the ideal place to look for wildflowers, but between 150 and 200 species of native plants have been documented in these 15 acres, many finding a roothold in the cracks and crevices of the rocks.  

We’ve come to these outcrops, rounded by glacial outwash river water and pocketed with potholes and pools, to look for one of Minnesota’s tiniest wildflowers, western rock jasmine. It doesn’t take us long to find clusters of the tiny plant, thanks to a knowledgeable friend who’s told us where to look.  Without his help it would have been easy for us to overlook a plant less than an inch tall with flower stalks that look like the ribs of an upside down umbrella. True to its name, western rock jasmine grows on the edges of rocky places.  It’s an earlier bloomer, but we are still too early to see it blooming. Just finding the plants in bud, though, delights us.

We’re on the hunt for other uncommon wildflowers as well, ones that grow mainly in this habitat of rocks dotted with pools and clumps of moss in shades of green.  We find the segmented leaves of Carolina cranesbill, another rock outcrop inhabitant that will bloom in June.  Among the distinctive lobed leaves of Caroline anemone we find a single flower, already blooming. 

Finding northern Idaho biscuitroot takes us longer, but we are happy crisscrossing the rocks, peering into crevices, trying to distinguish biscuitroot’s blue-green ferny looking leaves among last year’s dead grasses.  We find scattered leaves and a single blossom whose leaves have been eaten away but no plant with both leaves and flowers.  Then, in one corner of the rocks, we stumble across clusters of leaves, many blooming, others almost done blooming, and declare this the mother lode of northern Idaho biscuitroot, at least for this day in this amazing place.

Today, under a cloudy sky with a cool breeze blowing the scent of spring around us, we are thrilled with the tiny treasures we have seen.

A few miles down the road along the Minnesota River is Cedar Rock SNA adjacent to Cedar Rock Wildlife Management Area (WMA). The website lists rock outcrops at the SNA, so, giddy with success and already in love with outcrops, we decide to stop briefly before heading home. We park by the WMA and set off across a piece of prairie toward where we think the river and possible outcrops might be, but halfway across the prairie we veer away toward a glimpse of rocks to see what they might hold.

At the top of a small hill on a spreading outcrop we find ourselves staring at more prickly pear cactus than we ever seen before, growing like small, spiky headstones on the rocks and in the grass—at least a hundred of them.  We tread carefully—there are few places that don’t have one of the prickly pear pads protruding—and find the leaves of Carolina cranesbill along with northern Idaho biscuitroot blooming.  In a small indentation of the rocks a tiny dot of yellow whitlow-grass blooms, hardly bigger than western rock jasmine.

We went to Morton outcrops in search of specific flowers and plants, but we love, too, this kind of chance discovery, unlooked for and amazing. 

We’re not ready today to take the long hike through the WMA to the SNA, so we decide to drive along the road that borders them just to see what me might find when we return, which we promise ourselves we will do.  A river separates the road from the SNA so we can’t reach it from the road without wading across (something we’ve done in other small rivers and creeks but not today and not in this swift-looking current).  Along the road we discover another delight, delicate purple pasque flowers blooming in the grassy shoulder. We’ve seen pasque flowers before, but never this roadside surprise.  

Who could stop now?  Not us.  Driving on, we find and follow a narrow trail that leads up a hill through woods and down toward the little river.  More delights:  scattered bloodroot and anemone along with ramps growing under the trees.

Finally we head home, saturated with a day of flower chasing, from tiny treasures to unexpected cactus to roadside surprises.  We can’t imagine a better way to spend a day.