Winter Blooms

February 15, 2019

February—a meager month for Minnesota native wildflower seekers. Even skunk cabbage is still buried in snow, waiting out the subzero temperatures.

So we go looking for flowers in indoor places, beginning with the relocated Bell Museum. The incredible dioramas from the old Bell museum whose backdrops were painted by Francis Lee Jaques have been reconstructed in the new building on Larpenteur, and we wander from display to display, exclaiming over the wildflowers “blooming” in the woods and wetlands and prairies, as excited as though we were outside and seeing them for the first time.

Look, Virginia bluebells! Dwarf trout lily! Bluebead lily! Calypso! Bunchberry! And…wait, wait, we know this one, um…uvularia…bellwort! Our identification skills may have grown a little rusty, but a field trip or two once spring arrives will remedy that.

The dioramas also display birds and fish and mammals, but we are focused on the flowers. Where else can we escape phenology and see so many different flowers from different habitats and different seasons, all blooming at the same time?

Our second stop is the Como Conservatory, which we love to visit every February. The flowers here aren’t Minnesota natives, but stepping inside the tropical exhibit is like wrapping up in a blanket of warmth and humidity and birdsong. Lucky sloth, who hangs in a tree all day, soaking in all this sensory delight.

In the fern room we can feel our desiccated selves drinking in the moisture and greenery. The sunken garden explodes with scent and color—azaleas, cyclamen, pansies, lilies, amaryllis all in vivid purples and reds and fuchsias and pinks. And a wander through the rest of the conservatory takes us past so many orchids we stop trying to count.

On a cold February day, we are drenched in spring for a few hours, enough to last us through the rest of the icy days until skunk cabbage melts the snow away and snow trilliums bloom among snowflakes and another native wildflower season unfolds.

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

January in Minnesota

January in Minnesota and not a flower in sight.  So Kelly flew five hours south to Costa Rica in search of sun, sea, and color. Although January is the early part of the dry season in Costa Rica, there were plenty of flowers and green to counteract the Minnesota white she left behind.  And she learned that, later in the year, 1300 different kinds of orchids will bloom in Costa Rica.  (Minnesota, by comparison, has 49 orchids.) Just as Minnesota’s state flower is an orchid, Costa Rica’s national flower is also an orchid.

In Minnesota coffee beans keep us warm and awake.  In Costa Rica in January Kelly saw the delicate blossoms that will become our precious beans, along with hibiscus, bird of paradise, red ginger, and so many more colorful flowers we have yet to identify.

Flowers are not the only beautiful things to see in Costa Rica.  You could easily mistake a colorful toucan for an elegant flower, and hummingbirds, like flying flowers, are everywhere—50 of the 338 known species of hummingbirds can be found in Costa Rica.

Costa Rica in January is balm for the Minnesota soul.  We are already scheming to take a trip to Costa Rica when we can go together and the orchids will be in bloom.

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

A Good Year for Wildflower Searching

2018 was a very good year for wildflower searching in many ways. Here are a few of the highlights:

We went to Churchill, Manitoba, on Hudson Bay and saw 100 different native wildflowers in five days including two new orchids, a plethora of blooming butterwort, beluga whales, caribou, endless sunlight, and discovered our new, essential, beloved wardrobe item:  bug shirts.

We finally held our book, Searching for Minnesota’s Native Wildflowers, in our hands –and so did almost 3000 other folks.  The book was ten years in the making, we loved almost every minute of it, and we are still searching for more native wildflowers. We also did lots of bookstore, radio, and television interviews.

We discovered a Rustic Road near Maiden Rock, Wisconsin, along which we saw large flowered trillium, bellwort, Mayapple, cutleaf toothwort, yellow trout lily, Jack in the pulpit, wild ginger, Dutchman’s breeches, sarsaparilla, miterwort, more spring beauty than we’ve ever seen and, high on the hillside, three showy orchis just getting ready to bloom.  A one-stop site for spring wildflower viewing.

After many years of yearning and one hot day of searching on rock outcrops we finally saw ball cactus in western Minnesota (though not in bloom). This coming year we’ll go back to try to catch it blooming.

Thanks to a friend we met at a book signing, we saw purple fringed orchid and incredibly tiny Hudson Bay eyebright along the north shore.  Bonus:  spotted coral root, beach pea, and spurred gentian also in bloom at the same time and place.

So many more memorable moments:  our first trip to the aspen prairie parkland, the fruitless but lovely search for squirrel corn, more western prairie fringed orchid than we’ve ever seen before, several new-to-us orchids for a total (so far) of 32 Minnesota orchids, a floating bog full of grass pink and rose pogonia, sundew blooming, fragrant false indigo, rattlesnake plantain in bloom (!), Indian pipe, nodding ladies tresses blooming, and a gentian hat trick at Iron Horse SNA.

Our hope for the coming year:  that more and more people will learn to love and treasure what we love, Minnesota’s native wildflowers.

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

Dream a little.

A few days ago the last of three green ash trees in my front yard had to be cut down.  We had gotten the saplings, slender as whips, years ago as a give-away from Plywood Minnesota. As it turned out, I planted them way too close, and even though they had not yet become infected with green ash borer, they still had to be cut down.  I will plant another, native, tree in their place, but it will take years to grow, and come this spring, my previously shaded front yard will feel the full sun.  All of the shade-tolerant native flowers I’ve planted over the years will need to be dug up and shared with family and friends.

It’s always sad when a tree comes down, but already I’m planning the prairie I’ll plant in place of the woodland. Snow covers the tree stumps where I’m imagining blanket flower, blazing star, Joe pye weed, rattlesnake master, aster, gentian, butterfly weed.  In my mind, signs will tell passers-by the names of the flowers and why they matter:  bees love penstemmon, Monarchs flock to rough blazing star, chickadees eat sunflower seeds, American painted lady butterflies (whose caterpillars devour my pussytoes) feed on narrow leaved coneflower.  Maybe I’ll build a little free library that offers books about prairie and native plants and also little packets of seeds so folks can start their own pockets of native flowers.

Both Kelly and I have shifted over the years from non-native plants to native plants in our yards.  Why not watch the abundance of bees and birds and butterflies that come calling?  When winter locks up the land with not a native flower in sight, why not dream of our own little prairies and woodlands as we wait for snow trilliums and pasque flowers to bloom again?

We do love winter, but we’ll also spend a bit of our snowy time planning how we can bring a few of those native flowers home to our yards and our gardens.  It’s a hope for our yards, for our cities, for our planet, and all of us, animal and plant and human, who share this earth.

Dream a little. And when spring comes again, plant a patch of native flowers.  You and the bees and the butterflies and birds will all be glad you did.


Author, Phyllis Root
Photographer, Kelly Povo

Searching for Blue

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

August 10, 2018
Author, Phyllis Root
Photographer, Kelly Povo

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.

Happy International Bog Day!

International Bog Day, July 29, 2018

We love bogs.  From my first glimpse of the Big Bog up by Waskish, Minnesota, I fell in love with these wild and strange-to-me places—the mosses, the unusual plant inhabitants, the soft-needled tamarack trees, the great silence as though the deep peat soaks up sound.  Since then we’ve visited many bogs and many kinds of bogs, and we love them all.

Bogs are circumpolar, most of them occurring around the globe in the northern half of the earth.  The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources defines a bog as occurring “only on deep saturated peat… isolated from ground water and from water that flows from mineral soil…[which] makes bog water very low in mineral nutrients and very acidic so only very specialized plant species can survive these conditions.” Another way to think of a bog is as a bowl—water doesn’t really flow in or out.  Cold acidic water, harsh growing conditions:  bog plants are tough survivors.

This post is a tribute to some of the best bog visits we’ve had so far.

Lake Bemidji State Park Bog Boardwalk leads to the edge of a small lake and back.  Along the way signs point out some of the features.  With and without the help of signs we’ve seen, at various times, purple pitcher plant, Labrador tea, bog rosemary, stemless lady’s-slipper, grass pink orchid, buckbean, early coral root, three-leaf goldthread, and tiny insect-eating sundew.

At Long Lake bug shirts and raincoats were the fashion statement of the day. The lake is slowly filling in at the edges, a floating bog best seen from the water.  Canoeing around the edge of the lake we found many rose pogonia and grass pink orchids, along with sundew, bog cranberry, cottongrass, common bladderwort, and purple pitcher plant.  Even on a fallen log tiny little communities of plants grew.

Pennington Bog Scientific and Natural Area is an undisturbed forested bog so easily damaged that written permission from the Department of Natural Resources is needed to enter.  In the green light under white cedar, balsam fir, and black spruce trees calypso orchids (fittingly called fairy slippers) grow, along with lesser rattlesnake plantain, buckbean, gaywings, three-leaf goldthread, showy lady’s-slipper, and yellow lady’s-slipper.  A magically mysterious place.

Quaking Bog at Theodore Wirth Park in north Minneapolis is an urban remnant of a much larger bog, but even with a freeway nearby the atmosphere feels hushed. Here on various visits we’ve seen leatherleaf (the only place we’ve ever seen it blooming), buckbean, starflower, wild calla, Canada mayflower, and purple pitcher plant.

Iron Springs Bog Scientific and Natural Area up near Itasca State Park is a bog so big you’ll want a GPS to help you find your way back out again.  Here is where we first saw small round-leaved orchid, affectionately called (by us) polka-dotted orchid.   We also saw three-leaf goldthread, showy lady’s-slipper, Canada anemone, early coral root, purple pitcher plant, green bog orchid, sundew, Labrador tea, and tiny lesser rattlesnake plantain (although since finally seeing Hudson Bay eyebright we’ve redefined the meaning of “tiny”).

Minnesota has many more bogs and bog boardwalks—Sax Zim Bog, Hayes Lake State Park boardwalk–including one state park that once had a bog boardwalk until, the park ranger told us, “The bog ate it.” And even though we know that all landscapes change, that bogs at lake edges are slowly filling in, that bogs do eat boardwalks and that the bogs we know are only as old as the last ice age, we say long live bogs, big and small.  We love them all.

Happy International Bog Day!

Phyllis Root, Author
Kelly Povo, Photographer