Even though snow whitened the ground this past week before thoughtfully melting away, even though almost all native wildflowers have long gone to seed, we couldn’t resist another trip up to Helen Allison Savanna Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) to see the oak trees in their red and umber glory. Autumn color is drifting down, but the oaks, which seem to hang on to their leaves longer, didn’t disappoint. Even with heavy cloud cover they glowed.
We’ve been to Helen Allison SNA in the summer, but now we identified what plants we could by their distinctive seeds. Large-flowered beardtongue’s brown seed pods pointed upward in clusters, while spotted beebalm’s seed heads looked like fat beads stacked on a stalk. Poufs of white thimbleweed seed speckled the landscape, and sweet everlasting’s seed clusters looked at though clouds had landed on the ground.
It was clear, now that we weren’t distracted by blooming flowers, that in this part of the SNA the oaks mostly grew down in the blowouts. In the sand around one blowout we found clusters of some kind of fungi like villages of tiny round huts the color of oak leaves, and the earthstar fungi scattered around looked little bone colored stars. In the smaller swales patches of a starry-looking green moss felt soft and deep.
The sky clouded up even more, hinting at snow, and snow will come soon enough, we know. For today, though, no snow fell, and we had one more chance to visit a wild place to help see us through the coming winter.
We would love to keep on wildflower-chasing until the last wildflower goes to seed, but this is our final morning of the trip. Yesterday’s wind has died down (perhaps the weather forecast meant 3 a.m. instead of 3 p.m.?), and we have two more prairies to check out on our way homeward.
At Blanketflower Prairie Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) we are looking for its namesake now that we know what to look for. The trees and hills burn with fall colors in the morning light, and we wade through more grasses, asters, goldenrods, and blazing star going to seed, scanning for blanketflower. Down one hill, halfway up another, and there they are gazing down at us, more dark, spiky seed heads than we can count. As we come over the top of this second hill, we look down on yet more blanketflower in seed. Definitely a place we will return to.
Time presses, so we stop briefly at Richard M. and Mathilde Rice Elliot SNA which,according to the DNR, is almost 500 acres of high quality native prairie remnant. We’re still hopeful for pleated gentian, which is listed as growing here, and we decide our best chance is to walk along the edge of the prairie next to a promising ditch. We find bottle gentian but no pleated gentian. We also discover, almost hidden in the grass, the dried leaves and stem and seed pod of a plant that is almost surely an orchid. The SNA list of wildflowers for this site includes small white lady’s-slipper, and even though the stem and leaves look large for a small white lady’s-slipper, we take a gps coordinate and add this spot to our list of next year’s must-return-to places.
Moss grows in part of the ditch we’re following, and here we look especially closely because this seems to us like some sort of micro-habitat. A tiny bright blue flower turns out to be a lesser fringed gentian, less than six inches tall, and closer searching reveals more lesser fringed gentian gone to seed. An even tinier blue flower we identify as a Kalm’s lobelia–two new to us flowers. We add this ditch to our list of rich ditches and other roadside wonders.
We both feel more and more despondent as we head homeward. We’ve been socially distant not only from people but also from news which grows more and more dire every day. It’s hard to leave prairie hopping in the rear view mirror, but there is other important work we need to do: our jobs are waiting, a crucial election looms, and there are protests for racial justice we need to go to.
We have had four splendid days among the wildflowers, and we’re grateful. It’s time for other work. We drive on home.
We awake to treetops tossed by wind, a forecast that the wind will die by 3 o’clock and that no rain will fall. Our first stop, Frenchman’s Bluff Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) is a place we both immediately fall in love with. Deep ravines and scooped-out areas must once have been mined for gravel since we see similar mines nearby, but dry prairie species have reclaimed the dug-out areas, and the hills are covered with shortgrass prairie plants. Even though wind is gusting up to 17 miles per hour, down in the low places and on the leeward side of hills we are pleasantly warm and sheltered. Out in the wind we shiver and pull our windbreakers close.
White asters, blue asters, grey goldenrod, stiff goldenrod punctuate the reddish little bluestem grass that rolls with the wind like waves on an ocean. Many prairie plants are long gone to seed: leadplant, rough blazing star, prairie clover, dotted blazing star, prairie onion, thimbleweed in puffy white clouds. An abundance of prairie smoke leaves makes us promise to return next spring to see the hills covered with their flowers along with the pasque flowers and two kinds of pussytoes whose leaves we spot.
We’re surprised by how many gentians we find, both bottle and downy, including one downy gentian plant with at least a dozen stems and many more buds. We’ve only seen downy gentian flowers open before, and we marvel at the swirling spirals of color on the still-closed buds.
Blanketflowers are listed at this SNA, but we look in vain for the bright red and yellow blossoms rising up like pinwheels in the prairie. Instead, we find one bunch of tall sturdy stalks with white hairs and large, round, spiky seed heads that we think might possibly be blanketflower gone to seed. If they are, they have clearly not read the descriptions that say they bloom from May to September. This gone-to-seed bunch is our only clue, and while we’re not completely sure we are looking at blanketflower, maybe at our next stop we’ll find more evidence.
Next stop is Felton Prairie SNA where blanketflowers are also listed. Our first stop has a convenient patch by the roadside of more tall, hairy stalks and spiky seed heads, which strengthens our conviction that we really are seeing blanketflower gone to seed. Yet another good reason to come back earlier next year to see them in bloom.
We want to check out one more section of Felton prairie so, following written directions plus an I-phone blue dot, we turn down a single lane dirt road between farm fields. A bullet-hole-pocked sign warns that this road is minimum maintenance travel at your own risk, and we soon learn why. The road quickly becomes two tire tracks between trees, and the tracks turn into muddy ruts. Not wanting to risk damaging the car, we finally find a place wide enough to turn around. Reluctant to turn back yet, we park and continue on foot, skirting the muddy puddles.
SNA signs eventually prove us right, but trees and shrubs grow too tightly for us to get inside the SNA. Still, the wind tosses the glowing golden aspen leaves, it’s a fine day for a walk, and we’ve come this far. Why turn back now? A little farther on, the trees open up into prairie, and there among the grasses are the same tall, black, spiky seed heads we’ve seen twice now. This time they are scattered all around, the mother lode (for us, so far) of blanketflowers.
We’re certain there is an easier way into this section of SNA. In fact, we’re pretty certain that no one else has ever tried to get in down this loosely named road. But we’re glad we came, glad we found what we’re now certain are blanketflowers, and we laugh as we make our careful way back to the car and to the highway around ruts and through puddles.
Now we scan the roadsides for seed heads rising up like black punctuation marks as we drive to our last stop of the day, Bluestem Prairie SNA. Along one side of the SNA we stop to investigate more likely blanketflower candidates, and as we hop over a shallow ditch we look down at pale yellow flowers and round little seed heads. A quick i.d. check tells us we are looking at grass of Parnassus, an unexpected find.
The wind has not died down at 3 as promised, the zero percent chance of rain falls briefly on us, but we don’t care. We carry our rain gear, and when Kelly wants to take a photo I hold the flower still against the gusts. Bluestem Prairie offers up flowering Great Plains ladies’-tresses on their way to seed, downy gentian in bloom, more blanketflower gone to seed, more grass of Parnassus, smooth rattlesnake root, dotted blazing star in seed, and large-flowered penstemmon with its distinctive seed pods and dried leaves.
It is a very good (even if windy) wildflower-chasing day.