A day full of prairie, June 2018

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

We’ve been to the big woods to see the springtime flowers, we’ve been up north for a second spring (and even a bit of a third spring this past weekend near Duluth).  Now we’ve a hankering for the prairie flowers, so Sunday we headed out to McKnight Prairie, the closest undisturbed prairie we know of, located seven miles from Northfield  in the midst of a tree farm and corn fields.

As soon as we stepped onto the path that leads up the nearer of the two hills that make up McKnight Prairie, I was jotting names in my notebook while Kelly snapped pictures:  tall meadow rue, Canada milkvetch, golden Alexanders, Canada anemone, clammy ground cherry, and northern bedstraw  were all blooming, and scattered spires of prairie alumroot shot up above the grasses and flowers.  Prairie roses dotted the green with their bright pink petals, and along the hilltop we found the leaves of many pasque flowers, which must have made for a glorious early spring sight. Usually Kelly puts her camera back in her camera bag between pictures, but on this visit she just kept shooting flower after flower after flower.

Pussytoes, puccoon, blue-eyed grass, butterfly-weed already turning orange—everywhere we looked the prairie was awake with flowers.  On the second hillside the prickly pear cactuses were budding, larkspur bloomed, harebells danced and prairie smoke gone to seed rippled in the endless wind while several white camas bloomed brightly. Down the sweep of the hillside we recognized spiderwort and prairie sage.  The only worrying sight was the large-flowered beardtongue, which seemed blighted by spots on the leaves with only a few plants flowering, something we want to find out more about.

We took our time following the path back along the hills, soaking up the prairie and identifying one more new-to-us flower: green milkweed.  Back at the car I pulled ticks off my socks (white socks so the ticks show up), and we drove home on a perfect prairie day, filled up with wind and flowers and sky.

 

We also had a wonderful presentation and book signing at Content Books in Northfield, MN, tonight (June 13, 2018).  Life is good!

Screen Shot 2018-06-13 at 11.49.43 PM

Oh, for Peat’s Sake; A bog and a book signing

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

Heading up north to our first bookstore book signing in Park Rapids we detoured to the Lake Bemidji State Park bog boardwalk, one of our favorite places to visit.  The boardwalk leads out into a bog at the edge of a small, secluded lake.

Bogs are peatlands whose only water comes from precipitation; they are tough but fragile environments where footprints in the moss can leave a lasting mark, so we’re grateful for boardwalks that allow us a glimpse of these wild places.

Along the trail through the park to the boardwalk we saw signs of what we call second spring (the one we follow north after the first woodland flowers have already bloomed in southern Minnesota).  Wood anemone, Canada mayflower, sarsaparilla, pussytoes, and sessile-leaf bellwort all bloomed brightly under the trees.

We came to the bog while mist still drifted across the little lake where a lone loon called. Along the boardwalk we found Labrador tea’s white flowers, the small pink blooms of bog rosemary, purple pitcher plants deep in the moss, the small white flowers of goldthread (so called because of its thready yellow roots), bright buckbean, and the graceful buds of stemless lady’s-slipper about to open. Tamarack trees were already clothed in their soft green new needles, the tiniest of sundew plants were just beginning to show themselves in an island of moss, and blueberry bushes wore tiny pale bells of flowers.  A temperature gauge at the end of the boardwalk informed us that while the air temperature was 62 degrees Fahrenheit, ten inches below the surface the water in the bog was 36 degrees.

Later in the summer we’ll come back to look for tuberous grass-pink orchids, dragon’s-mouth, showy lady’s-slipper, more sundew, and whatever else we might see in this rich and amazing place. The plants that grow here may look fragile, but they are also tough survivors, able to tolerate higher acidity and colder water, and they delight us whenever we have a chance to see them.

Filled up with flower sightings and loon song, we drove from the wonder of the bog to the wonderful independent bookstore Beagle and Wolf Books and Bindery where we talked wildflowers with fellow flower seekers, signed books, read a lovely review of our book by bookstore owner Sally Wizik Wills, and had a splendid time. A day of bogs and bookstores.  What could be better?

BeagleandWolf

Spring Abloom, May 4 & 5, 2018

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

Spring Abloom
May 4, 2018

Suddenly, spring, and all sorts of native wildflowers seem to be rushing at once to make up for lost time.  We love looking for them in the wilder places, but it’s also great to visit a place with easy paths among the trees and flowers with name tags to help us be sure, for instance, that the tricky anemone flowers we’re looking at are truly Eastern false rue anemone.

On a quick trip to Minnesota’s Landscape Arboretum (“the Arb”) we headed for the bog boardwalk.  On a log in a pond, five turtles, from largest to smallest soaked up the sun.  A woodpecker hammered, birds called, and the trees were already tinged with the light green of new leaves.  A glorious day to wander and search.

And searching was easy.  Under the trees along the path, woodland flowers climbed the hillside while along the boardwalk marsh marigolds budded and small signs promised later blooms, including the lesser purple-fringed orchid we’ve been yearning to see.  Over in the wildflower garden, many of the same woodland flowers were either abloom or in bud, and, like the turtles in the sun, we basked in their presence.

Here’s a list of the native wildflowers we saw blooming in one afternoon at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum:
Bloodroot
Canadian wild ginger
Dutchman’s breeches
Skunk cabbage
Snow trillium
Hepatica
White trout lily
Eastern false rue anemone
Marsh marigold

And here are the ones that were almost in bloom:
Red columbine
Virginia bluebells
Large-flowered trillium
Mayapple
Nodding trillium
Dwarf trout lily

We love the wilder places, but we love, too, the wild native flowers wherever we find them. And we found them in abundance on an early May day at the Arb.

A Walk on the Wilder Side
May 5, 2018

With a whole Saturday ahead of us, we drove farther afield to see what other native wildflowers we might find.  On a precipitous hillside in Hastings where we’ve only ever seen snow trilliums and hepatica in March or April, we now discovered a forest floor carpeted in green.  Snow trilliums, taller now, still blossomed, but wild ginger with its dark red flowers hidden below velvety leaves also carpeted whole swaths of the floor along with Dutchman’s breeches where a fat bumblebee searched for nectar and pollen among arching stalks of white pantaloon-shaped flowers. A few large-flowered bellwort gracefully drooped soft yellow blossoms, and little star-shaped wood anemones bloomed in scattered places.  Alone and in bunches, eight-petaled bloodroot blossoms looked like bright white flowers dropped from the sky.  Same place, different time, a whole new world of flowers.

Our goal for the day was Frontenac State Park along the Mississippi River where we hoped to find rare squirrel corn, which looks much like Dutchman’s breeches but has a more rounded flower shape almost like butterfly wings.  We haven’t seen squirrel corn yet, but we live in hope, and so we headed down the Lower Bluff Trail at the park into more Dutchman’s breeches than we’ve ever seen. We studied their flower shapes as we negotiated the steep, sometimes stairstepped, trail down and down and down toward the river, wondering at times if a slightly different flower silhouette signified squirrel corn. But all of the flowers we saw had the distinctive two petals spreading like the legs of a pair of pants.

What we did see:
Dutchman’s breeches, Dutchman’s breeches, and more Dutchman’s breeches
Large-flowered bellwort
Bloodroot
Wood anemone

Of squirrel corn nary a blossom that we could discern, but oh, what a day of sunshine and springtime and flowers!

Finally—flowers!

7816
Pasqueflowers, April 22, 2018

The great Minnesota melt of 2018 has finally arrived. On Earth Day, the second day of temperatures in the high fifties that are rapidly making the piles of snow seem like a winter dream, we head out to look for the earliest bloomers. We’ve already seen skunk cabbage several weeks ago down by Minnehaha Creek while the snow still buried the ground.  Now on a steep gravelly hillside near Cannon Falls we find the first pasque flowers as well—many furry buds about to open and a scattering of pale purples flowers already blooming.  In the next few days, more pasque flowers will open, and in a week or two kittentails and pussytoes and prairie smoke (whose leaves are already greening) will begin to flower as well, but the pasque flowers are the ones that make us shout with delight.

Once we see pasque flowers, we can usually be sure that snow trilliums will be blooming, too, on a different hillside, a steeply wooded one near Hastings. Could we really be lucky enough to see both pasque flowers and snow trilliums in a single outing?  At Hastings the hillside is still frozen in places, but almost all of the snow cover has melted. Hepatica leaves are greening in the brown leaf cover of last year’s oak leaves, and in a corner of a cliff we find the tiniest snow trilliums I’ve ever seen, their leaves still upright enclosing a minuscule white bud not much bigger than a grain of rice.  These flowers, too, will open quickly now that spring is here, and hepatica will blossom blue and purple, while Dutchman’s breeches hangs its laundry out to dry.

Snow trilliums and pasque flowers in a single sunny afternoon—our long-awaited spring is finally here.  And our hearts are glad.

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

Still stalled

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

7809

It’s been several weeks since we found emerging skunk cabbage down along the Minnehaha falls trail on May 25. Since then, we’ve had snow, warming, more snow, cold, and a brief moment when the weather actually felt like spring. After a day of warmth that melted much (but not all) of the snow cover, we had planned an outing to our favorite snow trillium and pasque flower sites on Saturday. Then Thursday’s news promised us that “a big, ugly, and unpredictable storm is about to hammer much of Minnesota” with snow, rain, and ice.

But surely the skunk cabbage, already up and melting the snow around it, would be further along that when we’d seen them a few weeks ago. Surely a few more brave early bloomers would be joining them. Eager for some wildflower searching, on Thursday before the storm we headed back to Minnehaha Falls boardwalk.

The skunk cabbages hadn’t retreated into the ground, but neither were they much bigger than before, and a few looked decidedly frost-nipped. Other spring flowers must have still been wisely waiting underground, because we saw not so much as a marsh marigold leaf.

Many years ago my junior high home economics teacher, upon hearing me mutter darkly as I struggled with a pink polished cotton box-pleated skirt that was way beyond my sewing abilities, remarked in her soft southern voice, “Remember, class, the good book says that patience is a virtue.” Fifty plus years later, it’s a virtue that still eludes me, especially when I’m hungry for the first native flowers of spring.

We assured ourselves that there were definitely more skunk cabbage emerging than we’d seen last time. We reminded ourselves that every year we go looking earlier than common sense would suggest. We congratulated ourselves that at least this year we didn’t drive four hours north to be surprised by persistent winter but did so close to home.

Still.

Isn’t it about time, Spring? We’re really, really ready to welcome you.

 

March 26, 2018

3_25_18R_skunkcabbage7757@72
Skunk Cabbage, March, 2018

We had bundled up for the March for Our Lives in Saint Paul and marched along with an estimated ten thousand other folks, mainly young people, to the capitol building to demand action to end gun violence.   After the rally, still warmly dressed, we decided to run down to Hastings and see if the snow trilliums were venturing out of the ground. Never mind that the wind as we had crossed the bridge over the Mississippi was bitingly cold. Never mind that snow buried much of the still-frozen ground. We were hungry for the first wild flowers of the season. And so we went searching for a sign that spring had begun.

The north facing, forested slope where in previous years we’ve found snow trilliums, one of the first spring ephemerals, was still ankle deep in crunchy snow. All we found in a few bare spots around the trunks of trees were last year’s hepatica leaves lingering, waiting for this year’s blooms before putting out new leaves. Of snow trilliums, which can bloom even in the snow, not a glimpse. Under that snow they waited for warming.

But snow trilliums, we’ve learned in our wildflower searching, might not be the first Minnesota native wildflowers of spring. Skunk cabbage, it turns out, is in even more of a hurry. The plant makes its own internal heat with starch from its roots. Its maroon-colored spathe (a modified leaf) is shaped like a bird’s large, sharp beak, and the flowers, which have no real petals, open inside the protection of that spathe. Skunk cabbage, along with other woodland wildflowers, grows in the marshy ground along Minnehaha Creek, so on Sunday we head for the boardwalk beside the swiftly running water. Snow has melted from stretches of ground beside the boardwalk, and here we spot our first skunk cabbage breaking through the dark earth. And then another, and another, and another. One flower even grows in the center of a melted circle of snow, proof of what we’ve read about skunk cabbage’s internal heat melting the snow cover so the plant can emerge.

Never mind that the spring equinox has come and gone and snow is predicted for tomorrow. Never mind that we haven’t yet seen a robin returning. Here, alongside Minnehaha creek, skunk cabbage is a sure sign that spring has arrived and the season of searching for Minnesota’s native wildflowers has officially begun.