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.

Happy International Bog Day!

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

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

They’re blooming? We’re on the way!

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

We came to the North Shore to see Hudson Bay eyebright and purple fringed orchid blooming, thanks to a helpful phone call from a master naturalist and fellow wildflower lover who told us where both were blooming.  And he was exactly right:  we drove north, turned along the road he told us, turned again, crossed the railroad tracks, made one more turn, and saw purple fringed orchid gloriously blooming up and down the roadside ditch.  Driving on up to Sugarloaf Cove on Lake Superior, we found the tiny, tiny arctic relict Hudson Bay eyebright blooming in cracks of rocks. The plants and flowers are so minute that we might never have found them without Phil’s help.

Scattered in crevices and seemingly growing right out of the rocks we found other small plants that Kelly photographed and we later identified:  white upland goldenrod, which looks like small daisies, three-tooth cinquefoil, shrubby cinquefoil.

Every fracture or dip in the rock seemed like a tiny world of its own.

On the path down to the cove spotted coral root grew.  Returning in the morning to get one more look at the eyebright, we also found beach pea in glowing blues and purples and magentas, spurred gentian, twin flowers and bunchberry blooming, early coral root, and, with the guidance of a naturalist at the Sugarloaf interpretive center, one-flowered pyrola and large leaved shinleaf.  One-flowered pyrola flowers face demurely downward until they go to seed—one group we saw going to seed had turned upward like a crowd of people staring at the sky.

We stopped so often along the road to photograph evening primrose, more purple fringed orchids, a tall northern bog orchid, smooth oxeye, and fringed loosestrife we thought we might never make it home.

We did, though, already eager for our next exploration and grateful for friends who share their enthusiasm and knowledge for the same native wildflowers we love.

Phyllis Root, Author
Kelly Povo, Photographer