A Prairie Fourth of July

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

July 4, 2019

From the road, McKnight Prairie, an outlier of the Carleton Arboretum, looks like nothing more than two green hills set down amid farm fields. But, we weren’t even halfway up the first hill before I’d filled a page of field notes of flowers seen, among them Canada milkvetch, prairie phlox, clammy ground cherry, wild four o’clock, and pale lobelia.

The list just grew longer at the top of the hill with leadplant, prairie rose, larkspur, showy tick trefoil, and white prairie clover.  At the very peak of the first hill the beautifully orange butterfly-weed appeared, with plants scattered down the hillside and into the far field, where they mixed with yellow black-eyed Susan and coreopsis and white yarrow and daisy fleabane in a crazy quilt of colors.

Halfway up the second hill in a sandy blowout we found plains prickly pear cactus.  We had come with high hopes that the plants would be in bloom, and we found pale papery yellow blossoms perched on top of spiked pads just opening in the sunshine.  Many buds looked to open soon.  Hoots and high fives—our last trip to western Minnesota to see ball cactus blooming wasn’t a success, but here, closer to home, plains prickly pear flowers made us very happy.

A month or so ago these hillsides were covered with swaths of kittentail, prairie smoke, and violets. Now only leaves and seed heads showed where these early spring flowers had bloomed. Every day the prairie makes itself anew, and we will come back in a week or two to see what new treasures it offers.

On the way home we detoured to River Terrace Prairie Scientific and Natural Area, a place we’ve only ever visited in early spring for the pasqueflower and kittentail that grow there.

Here, too, the prairie had remade itself, with scatterings of harebells, spikes of larkspur, and bright bursts of puccoon. Whorled milkweed was about to bloom, kittentail had gone to seed, and in the middle of the path we found a milkweed we’d never seen before and identified as green milkweed with flowers just about to open.  Here, too, we’ll return to see the milkweeds in flower and any other surprises this hillside prairie holds.

On the hike back to the car what looked like a great spangled fritillary butterfly fluttered past us.  Two prairies, blooming cactus, a new-to-us milkweed–what better way to celebrate a spangled fourth of July?

Please note: McKnight is a fragile prairie site, carefully maintained and restored so everyone can learn about and appreciate prairies.  And, although it is open to the public, please be attentive to where you step and stay on the path!  Groups of ten or more need to register their visits here. Collecting of any plant or animal, including seeds, is strictly prohibited. Protect native wildflowers and McKnight Prairie!

A note from the Puzak Family Director of the Cowling Arboretum: please avoid entering the sandy areas where the soil and small plants and animals are especially fragile. Pets are not allowed at McKnight Prairie. While a simple footpath exists at McKnight, is is not mowed or maintained. We also encourage you  to visit the prairie and forest restorations at the Carleton College Arboretum in Northfield where many prairie species can be seen. There are 15 miles of maintained trail that provide ample opportunity for many nature observations. The Arboretum is open every day dawn to dusk at no charge.


A Mad Dash West

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

June 16, 2019

Have you ever driven three hours one way just in the hope of seeing a ball cactus in bloom?

We have.

After a phone call confirmed that ball cactus might be blooming in Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge near the South Dakota border, Kelly and I jumped in the car to find out for ourselves–never mind that we’d just gotten back from a 600 mile searching-for-wildflowers road trip up north.

We’d seen ball cactus, one of the state’s rarest plants, for the first time last year long past its bloom time, and seeing it with its magenta flowers open was high on our wish list for this year.

Three hours later we arrived at the refuge and drove straight to the rock outcrops where ball cactus grows.  The beautifully round little cactuses with their tessellated spines did indeed have pinkish protrusions that might either have been blossoms already finished blooming or buds just about to bloom. Were we too early or too late?  After studying all the cactuses we could find, we decided we were just a few days too early—the edges of many buds showed the bright-colored petals beginning to protrude.

Even though we didn’t actually see ball cactus in full bloom, we saw so much else. Brittle cactus grew in abundance on the rocks, and the surrounding tall grass prairie was abloom with spiderwort, larkspur, prairie alumroot, narrow-leaved bluet, yarrow, prairie rose, hairy false goldenaster, slender beardtongue, and prairie cinquefoil.

We wandered on top of rocky outcrops under the vast prairie sky, a cool wind blowing, feeling as though we were standing in the middle of a world made right by wind and sky and the promise of cactus flowers.

Next year’s wish list: we’ll try again, but we don’t regret this mad dash to try to see ball cactus blooming.  The prairie filled our hearts.

And after all, what are wish lists for but to wish on?

Brilliant Spots of Color

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

June 15, 2019

Winter’s white is long gone (well, not that long—this is Minnesota), and now the world is awash in green. Trees have leafed out, the ephemerals are mostly finished, and some of the greenest places we’re visiting now are forests and bogs.  Many of the flowers we’re seeing are white or pale yellow, so spots of brilliant color catch our eye.

On our early morning walk to the Bemidji State Park boardwalk we passed under arching trees and past many, many sarsaparilla, their lacy white ball-shaped blossoms like so many Christmas ornaments beside the path.  White starflowers, white pussytoes going to seed, white bastard toadflax, white bunchberry blossoms, pale yellow lousewort, and soft yellow bluebead lily all lined the trail.

When we reached the boardwalk we found Labrador tea, cotton grass, and three-leaf false Solomon’s seal all blooming white against the mossy greens.  A few last marsh marigolds made bright blurts of yellow in watery places, and deep pink stemless lady’s slippers bowed gracefully on what look like tall stems but are actually flower stalks. Dark maroon pitcher plant flowers rose on long stalks, but what really caught our attention was the bright magenta of dragon’s mouth orchids almost hidden in the moss.  Farther along the boardwalk, several more dragon’s mouths were either in bloom or about to bloom—glorious little punctuation marks that made us hoot with joy.

Under a cathedral of tall, tall trees in the Lost Forty Scientific and Natural area we found more bits of brightness: stemless lady’s slippers, small gaywings with their purple and bright pink blossoms, the tiny pink bells of rose twisted stalks.  On the forest floor, under past years’ pine needles, Kelly found the seed stalk and leaves of lesser rattlesnake plantain—not a vivid color, but certainly a vivid little leaf pattern.

Still hungry for bright colors, we ended the day canoeing around Long Lake where a floating bog surrounds the shore.  It wasn’t long before we spotted one dragon’s mouth, then another, then several, then a whole cluster of at least 16 dragon’s mouths. Around the bog edge blue flag, pale pink bog rosemary, white wild calla, and tiny reddish sundew all bloomed while pitcher plants blossoms so shiny they looked polished rose up above the moss. Even though some raindrops fell and mosquitoes occasionally buzzed us, we didn’t care, happy to be on the water and grateful for the sight of so many dragon’s mouths blooming their brief time of brilliance in the bog.

Check out Phyllis’s new children’s book on the Lost Forty: The Lost Forest