Autumn shows its own colors–the waxy red bulbous seed pods of prickly pear cactus, the translucent seed pods of partridge pea, the purplish red of sumac and the gold of prairie grasses, the frilly blues and whites of so many kinds of asters whose names we don’t yet know.
And the vivid blue of downy gentians.
Downy gentians open to the sun–you won’t find them blooming brightly on cloudy days, and if you wait too late on a sunny day to photograph one, you may find it closing with the waning sunlight (we know, we waited too long once).
On a morning of late prairie splendor we go looking for downy gentians on a hillside and find first one, then another, and then so many we quit counting them all. The plants nestle down in the grass, shaded enough that they’re still closed when we begin to spot them–but not so tightly closed that a bumblebee can’t force her way in and back out again. As the sun rises higher, the blossoms unfold until we’re surrounded by a motherlode of brilliant gentian blue.
We wander the rest of the prairie. A snake crawls across the path. Wind sways the grasses. The blue sky opens overhead.
Any time is a good time to be on a prairie, but this morning is especially glorious.
We’ve been on a search for Minnesota’s five different ladies’-tresses orchids that are findable (southern slender ladies’-tresses hasn’t been seen in Minnesota in 100 years, so we’re not really looking for it here). We were briefly ecstatic to see a “new” one listed, sphinx ladies’-tresses, until a friend told us it was really just nodding ladies’-tresses under a new name.
We’ve found nodding (or, now, sphinx) ladies’-tresses in a wet part of Blaine Preserve Scientific and Natural Area (SNA). We’ve seen both Case’s ladies’-tresses and also northern slender ladies’-tresses on top of a huge hill of dirt dug up decades ago to get to the iron ore below. We spotted Great Plains ladies’-tresses in vigorous bloom on a goat prairie at King’s and Queen’s Bluffs SNA. And on a roadside in Pennington County in northern Minnesota a few weeks back we saw hooded ladies’-tresses blooming.
When flower chasing brought us north again a few weeks later we stopped by that same roadside to check on the hooded ladies’-tresses and found almost no sign of them except for a couple of plants gone to seed. What we did see blooming were a few similar-but-not quite-the-same spiraling white orchids, and we puzzled over them. Shaggy hooded ladies’-tresses on their way to seed? Nodding ladies’-tresses? Great Plains ladies’-tresses?
It’s easy to confuse nodding and Great Plains ladies’-tresses. We know. We’ve done it. The flowers look similar and bloom at overlapping times in wetter places, although Great Plains ladies’-tresses also blooms in drier, gravelly habitats. We’ve read that Great Plains ladies’-tresses smells like almonds, but to our non-botanical noses both flowers smell pretty much the same. To complicate things, distribution maps for the two don’t show either one in Pennington county. Maps, of course, can be mistaken, but so can we.
The next day in a ditch in Clay county we saw several of the same blooming ladies’-tresses and puzzled some more. The only clue we could find was that the blooming plants didn’t appear to have any leaves, and since Great Plains ladies’-tresses loses its leaves before blooming, we tentatively identified them as Great Plains. (Later we found that Great Plains ladies’-tresses is listed as being in Clay county while nodding ladies’-tresses is not, which helped strengthen our identification.) Are we right? We don’t know. We didn’t really stress over which ladies’-tresses we saw, but they were a mystery. In the end, finding any ladies’-tresses blooming gracefully in places wet or dry, whether or not we know its name, is always a delight.
Late summer flowers are gracing the prairie in purples and yellows. One morning before dawn we headed east to Lost Valley Prairie Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) to catch the early morning light. The sun didn’t disappoint, sending long rays across the prairie by the time we arrived. Dew sparkled on the grasses and flowers, and the top of one hill was dotted with dotted blazing stars blooming brightly. (All five of Minnesota’s blazing stars grow in this SNA, and we saw four of them that morning–cylindric, northern plains, rough, and dotted.)
The valley between two bluffs was a sea of goldenrod. For years we’ve simply nodded at any kind of goldenrod we saw and said, “Yep, that a solidago.” This year we decided we would tackle learning to tell Minnesota’s eighteen different goldenrods apart, and what better time to try to learn them than when hills and prairies are turning gold?
Some goldenrods are easier to identify than others. Upland white goldenrod is a slam-dunk, the only non-golden goldenrod. Riddell’s goldenrod has long, arching leaves that fold in on themselves. Hairy goldenrod has hairy leaves and stem. Cliff goldenrod usually grows on cliffs, bog goldenrod in bogs.
A few still elude us, though, even with a cheat sheet we’ve created from information in guide books and web sites. Unfortunately, a frequent description for identifying characteristics is “variable.” Toothiness? Variable. Height? Variable. Flower cluster shape? Variable. We suspect (and a little online research confirms) that at least some goldenrods hybridize promiscuously, which might account for some of the variations and for our confusion.
But we’re determined. We think we can now tell Canada goldenrod from tall goldenrod, and we’re pretty sure about giant goldenrod, whose leaves seem exceptionally toothy.
The next afternoon we headed west to Yellow Bank Hills SNA, arriving in time to catch the long, low light of evening. near the western edge of the state, arriving in time to catch the long, low light of evening on the goldenrods and sunflowers that filled the site’s low areas. On the hillsides blazing stars, both dotted and northern plains, bloomed in purple glory. We wandered the dry hill prairie until the light left, then headed to our camper cabin at Lac Qui Parle State Park, where the stars in the night sky blazed like brilliant white flowers in a vast, dark prairie.