Prairie Hopping, Day One and Two

September 18-19, 2020

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

It’s mid-September, but the prairie is still going, and so are we.  We’ve done only day trips so far this summer because of corona virus, but now we plan a three-day trip to western Minnesota taking along a camper so we have a place to stay at night without worrying about social distancing.  Identifying each of Minnesota’s eighteen different goldenrods is one of our primary goals for the trip, but we also have a laundry list of flowers that grow mainly in the western part of the state. 

Friday noon we head off to Minnesota’s only saline lake which has water about a third as salty as seawater.  The lake itself is only about three hundred acres in size but still smells like the ocean.  We slurp our way along the thin rim of soggy sand and dried reeds that edges the lake and happen upon a small succulent-looking plant that we later identify as red saltwort. We are thrilled to find a plant we haven’t seen before.

Next stop: Yellow Banks Hill Scientific and Natural Area (SNA), seventy-eight rolling acres of prairie grasses with bright spots of color from dotted blazing star, goldenrods, and asters. Here we identify the yellow flowers and feathery leaves of cut-leaf iron plant and the silvery leaves of Missouri milkvetch, two more new-to-us plants. We hoped to see velvety goldenrod, listed as growing here, but no luck.  We’ll keep looking.

Home for the night is Big Stone Lake State Park, where the wind comes across from South Dakota to rustle the trees, and the sky fills with more stars than we ever see in the city. 

We leave early the next day (though not as early as in high summer, since daylight comes later now, and besides, the camper is comfy with a second cup of coffee). At a corner of Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge we stop briefly to search for and identify goldenrods.  We find goldenrods aplenty, some already colorfully going to seed, but soon realize we don’t know enough to identify a plant whose description might read:  “leaves may be pointed or rounded, smooth or serrated, hairy or not.” Turns out there’s a good reason we have simply said in the past, “Yep, that’s some kind of solidago,” and moved on. We do manage to add a couple of goldenrods to the list of ones we are (almost) sure of–stiff goldenrod, grass-leaved goldenrod, showy goldenrod, grey goldenrod, and upland white goldenrod. Beyond that, we put identifying goldenrods on our “next year” list and drive on. Still, we are glad we stopped to see the hills and sloughs of Big Stone burning with fall colors in the early morning light.

On our way to the next stop, Ottertail Prairie SNA, we pass a small lake crowded at one end with pelicans and what we tentatively identify as cormorants. Around one edge of the lake a line of twenty or so egrets elegantly stands. When we stop the car for Kelly to photograph them, the pelicans and cormorants lift up in a flurry of wings and set down again in the middle of the lake while the egrets simply watch, calm and unmoving.

Otter Tail Prairie SNA is 320 acres, so rather than walk across the whole expanse we park to walk an area of it, then drive along to the next area and walk some more, looking for pleated gentians, which only grow in the northwestern prairies.  We find one bottle gentian blooming, then no more gentians for several hours until we drive to another side of the SNA.  There within a few minutes we discover both bottle gentians gone to seed and also smaller gentians still blooming blue whose leaves look slightly different.  Bottle gentians, or pleated gentians still in bud? Here, too, we don’t have enough information to tell decisively what we are seeing.  We find the same two kinds of plants at Western Prairie SNA but no open pleated gentians, whose distinctive white-speckled petals would make identification easy. 

We end the day at Buffalo River State Park with a brief visit to nearby Bluestem Prairie SNA, then head back to the camper as the sun sets red in a haze from western wildfires.  Tomorrow more prairies, more searching, and who knows?  Maybe blanketflower, another flower on our wish list.  

Maybe even a blooming pleated gentian.

Another First

September 6, 2020

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

Once the spring wildflowers fade, we seldom go back to the woods.  Instead we head for prairie and bog and rocky shores where flowers bloom into the fall. But when word came that autumn coral root was blooming in a woods at a county park, we hopped in the car and drove straight there.  Last fall we’d trekked through Miesville Ravine in an unsuccessful search for this inconspicuous orchid.  Now, thanks to specific instructions generously given, we found it almost as soon as we arrived at the park. 

Autumn coral root, like most of the coral roots, has no chlorophyll and depends on a relationship with mycorrhizal fungi for food.  Its yellow-green to brownish color provides good camouflage against the fall forest floor, but we found clumps and single plants both. Minnesota Wildflowers states that this is a plant perhaps only a mother could love, and both of us, mothers, loved it.  In the same area:  many many ghost pipe plants, which also lack chlorophyll, glowing white in the muted light under the trees.  

We also identified the leaves of several springtime flowers—bloodroot, hepatica, Solomon’s seal—and the bright red berry clusters of Jack in the pulpit gone to seed and swore we’d come back to this rich little bit of woods in the spring to catch these flowers blooming.

Another stop at Rush River County Park led us up a tilty railroad tie stairs to a small but rich prairie remnant where we saw cylindric blazing star, leadplant, asters, prairie onion, goldenrods, harebell, and, most surprising, blanket flower—lovely, but most likely a garden escapee as it doesn’t grow in this part of the state. We also saw many cedars encroaching on this piece of native prairie and hope that plans are being made to remove them to let the prairie thrive in sunlight. We have so little native prairie left that we should do everything possible to keep what we still have while we still have it.

The sun shone, a sweet breeze blew, temperatures were in the seventies, and we were close enough to Kasota Prairie Scientific and Natural Area (SNA), to drive on down to look for downy gentian, which grows in dry, hilly ground. The SNA list of wildflowers for Kasota Prairie doesn’t include any gentians, but I had a memory of seeing many bottle gentians there years ago, so we went in hope of seeing bottle or downy gentian—or even both.

Even with poison ivy rampant in the SNA (thank you, rubber boots, for keeping us poison ivy-free) the prairie still delights with white asters, blue asters, purple asters, goldenrod abuzz with bees, prairie grasses, big bluestem, prairie onion, and blazing stars.  And there, not more than a minute along a path into the prairie, we found a downy gentian brilliantly blue.  A few minutes later, we found another.  Hopeful, we traversed the prairie, marveling at all the butterflies whose names we don’t know and watching for the telltale gentian blue.  We were almost to the other side when we spotted a bottle gentian, its leaves pristine, its flowers blooming not only at the top but also in two other leaf axils along the stem—the most beautiful gentian either of us had ever seen in all our gentian hunting days.

One more downy gentian and one more bottle gentian revealed themselves. Kelly wanted one more photograph of downy gentian number two, so we made our slow way back toward it, stopping to search for a Kalm’s lobelia we thought we’d seen earlier this summer.  No lobelia, and by the time we reached the downy gentian, the day had wound down enough that the flower had closed up its petals.  So had downy gentian number one.  Who knew the flowers closed up as the light waned?  We knew now—one more tiny bit of knowledge about the wildflowers we love.

In a month where we expect to see goldenrods, grasses, asters, and blazing stars, we also found the unexpected. Autumn coral root, ghost pipe in abundance, downy gentian, and a perfect bottle gentian.  We drove home so excited, satisfied, and satiated with sunshine and new-to-us flowers that we forgot to eat supper- yet another first.

Prairie Perfect

August 31, 2020

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

A hard week in a hard summer.
Yet another black man shot by police.
More Covid-19 deaths.
Politics that seek to divide us instead of unite us.

Overwhelmed by it all, we decided to head to Iron Horse Prairie Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) to search for gentians.  One of the finest prairie remnants in southeastern Minnesota, Iron Horse Prairie was saved by being sandwiched between two former railroad track spurs. The prairie lies below and between them. 

We followed the path into the SNA to where the prairie proper begins. Barely at the bottom of the slope we found them:  bottle gentian after bottle gentian after bottle gentian, their closed blue blossoms bright in the grass.  Bumblebees pollinate the flowers, fighting their way inside and out again. Who knows what evolutionary advantage being hard-to-get offers bottle gentians, but it works:  we found more blooming than we’d ever seen before.

Iron Horse holds two other kinds of gentians, fringed and stiff, and it wasn’t long before we found both.  Fringed gentian’s four petals overlap in a bloom not much more than an inch across.  Stiff gentian, its many blossoms lighter blue, always reminds us of rockets with its skyward pointing flowers. In one small area all three gentians grew in proximity, a gentian hat trick.

We’ve been to prairies this year where the sweat dripped from our hair in the heat, but on this day a sweet breeze kept us cool, and at times the clouds even covered the sun for Kelly’s photos. (Other times I held the shade screen for her in a variety of flower-chasing yoga poses.)  

Many of the flowers we’d seen here on earlier visits were already gone to seed—rattlesnake master, prairie clover, wild quinine—but many blazing stars still bloomed along with goldenrods, asters, smooth rattlesnake root, and, surprisingly, white rattlesnake root, which we’ve mostly seen at the edges of woods.  One theory:  trees used to grow along the now-cleared path into the SNA, and perhaps rattlesnake root took advantage of that shade to grow.  

On our way back to the cities we couldn’t resist stopping at McKnight Prairie, part of the Carleton College Arboretum. We’ve never been there at this time of year, but because of Covid-19 we’ve spent the summer going to places closer to home, and we’ve stopped here often. Now the prairie surprised us with Indian grass higher than our heads, the graceful stalks waving in the breeze that is an integral part of prairie life. Goldenrods, asters, and sweet everlasting bloomed along with partridge pea still flowering bright yellow while the sun lit the translucent seed pods that had already formed.

And then the surprise of the day:  rough-seeded fameflower, a small, state-threatened plant.  We’d seen small-flowered fameflower’s round, succulent-looking leaves (but no flowers) at Morton Outcrop SNA earlier in August.  And now we were looking down at rough-seeded fameflower, whose flowers only bloom for a day each and only at the end of the day.  A gift from the prairie that made our hearts happy.  

Our shadows stretched long across the prairie before we were ready to head home.  We walked back to the car with the prairie hills glowing in the late day’s slanting light, glad we had gone gentian hunting and grateful for the unlooked-for gift of seeing rough-seeded fameflowers in bloom.

A late summer prairie perfect day.