Why go flower chasing when most of the flowers are done blooming for the year? Because finding flowers even far gone to seed will help us know where to locate them next year to catch them in bloom.
Kelly had seen Great Lakes gentian gone to seed, a flower on our wish list, when she was up on the north shore earlier in the week, so we headed north together so I could see them, too. At a spot off highway 61 not only did we find the seed heads and distinctive gentian leaves of Great Lakes gentian (gone even more to seed), we also saw a few late nodding ladies’-tresses nearby.
Our next north shore stop was Cascade River State Park where last winter we’d found a stalk poking up through the snow that we tentatively identified as “some kind of orchid.” We’d missed getting to the north shore this summer to see what kind of orchid it might be when it bloomed, but even this late in the year we still hoped to find enough clues to identify it. We found the stalk easily, and although the flowers had withered, the two wide leaves at the bottom of the stalk narrowed our choices to Hooker’s orchid or lesser round-leaved orchid. Next year we’ll plan a visit to see it blooming in all its glory.
Another surprise: not only were the fall leaves turning, but color scattered across the forest floor as well. Bunchberry leaves were now deep red with green-edged veins, sarsaparilla leaves had turned a soft coral, and a few blue beads of bluebead lily stood up on stalks. Who knew these spring wildflowers held so many colors of fall?
A search the next day for a different kind of ladies’-tresses led us over rocks, through woods, and up and down hills until we found the plant, again long gone to seed but one that we’ll come back to see blooming next summer. And what’s not to like about a hike through the woods where moss covers boulders and maples leaves burn red under pines?
Our final sojourn led us far, far down a dirt road to an even narrower dirt road where asters, goldenrods, and pearly everlasting still bloomed. We left the car and followed a railroad track to another railroad track to a power line cut, in hopes of one last ladies’-tresses sighting of the weekend. Here our luck ran out, but we still had an enjoyable hike way into the back of beyond.
Even when flowers are long done blooming we love the places our searching takes us and the splendid time we get to spend out of doors under a wide blue autumn sky.
We have always visited the woods in springtime for those early spring ephemerals that need to bloom before the trees leaf out. But we’ve learned that some flowers grow in the shade of trees throughout the summer because they don’t need sunshine—they have no chlorophyll to make their own food and depend on fungi and rotting debris to feed them.
One of these flowers is autumn coralroot. Like most of the coralroots it has no chlorophyll (early coralroot has a little chlorophyll in its stem but still needs fungi), so it can bloom even in deep shade. On an August evening we headed to a county park where almost all of the trees are virgin forest and where, thanks to a tip from a wildflower friend, we had seen autumn coralroot growing last September.
Maybe we were a week or so too early. Maybe this year the coralroot decided to wait out the drought—the ground was so hard it was easy to imagine plants underground with little jackhammers trying to break through. Whatever the reason, the only possible sign of autumn coralroot was a mowed-over brown patch of dried stems sticking a few inches out of the ground that might possibly have been last year’s autumn coralroot stems.
We did see lots of ghost pipe just emerging from the leaf litter, so white it seemed to glow. Like coralroot, ghost pipe has no chlorophyll—it, too, depends on fungi to feed it. Finding ghost pipe always feels like a treat, something pale and mysterious unfolding as it grows and looking, well, ghostly.
We were thrilled, too, to find zigzag goldenrod growing at the edge of the woods. This year we’re working on learning all of the goldenrods, and being able to identify zigzag brings our total of ones we’re sure of to four out of eighteen: zigzag, stiff, white upland, and grass-leaved. Only fourteen more to go.
The evening was still so hot that we dripped with sweat. Like ghost pipe and the ghost of autumn coralroot, we, too, were shade lovers, glad of the occasional breeze. And since we, too, have no chlorophyll, we were glad, to come across a weekly summer event in nearby Henderson, full of classic cars, folks enjoying the evening, and food trucks where we feasted before we headed home.
This year of intense drought has pushed some wildflowers ahead of their usual blooming times and left others so stressed they might not bloom at all this year. This weekend we set off to see how a few of the last flowers on this year’s wish list might be doing: pleated gentian, bog adder’s mouth, and velvety goldenrod. Since each blooms in a different habitat, we mapped a route up to Iron Springs Scientific and Natural Area (SNA), on toward Pembina Trail SNA, and finally down the western border to Yellow Bank Hills SNA.
We left Minneapolis in early morning coolness, but by the time we reached Iron Springs Bog SNA the day was beginning to heat up. Under the trees the air was still sweetly cool, and we made one last intense search for bog adder’s mouth, either blooming or gone to seed. We saw lots of green adder’s mouth gone to seed, a few one-flowered pyrola still blooming, lesser rattlesnake plantain gone to seed, tall northern bog orchid, northern green orchid, blunt-leaved orchid gone to seed, and one-sided pyrola gone to seed. But no matter how we scoured the hummocks of moss for the diminutive bog adder’s mouth (3 to 7 inches tall) we maintained our perfect record of not finding it no matter how hard we looked. Still, it was a lovely morning to be in a bog, the wind in the pine trees, a sense of moisture in the air, and a whole marshy area full of spotted Joe Pye weed blooming near the creek.
Our next stop was a wildlife management area (WMA) where several years ago we had seen western prairie fringed orchid in bloom. Although we knew we were well past the orchid’s bloom time, we wanted to verify its location. The roadside ditch where we’d spotted the orchid in past years was dry, and we couldn’t find a trace of even the orchid’s leaves. We did see kalm’s lobelia vigorously blooming its small cheery blue flowers alongside pale American grass of parnassus blossoms. Up on the WMA itself we found dried brown leaves that looked to be western prairie fringed orchid but no sign that the plants had flowered this year. We’ll be back earlier next year to see if the orchids survived this year’s drought. We hope so.
Up in the prairie we also found the distinctive leaves of bottle gentian, although the buds were so desiccated we doubted they would bloom at all this year.
Our last stop of the day was Pembina Trail SNA where we searched for more gentians, finding the leaves of some in a dry ditch with no blossoms. Places that looked like they had once been wetter now crackled under our feet as though the prairie had been burned. And in a way it has —even though the prairie evolved in sun and dryness and wind, this year has felt particularly brutal for many wildflowers. We ended the day feeling parched ourselves no matter how much water we drank.
Sunday as we headed south to Otter Tail Prairie SNA a distant line of rain fell from grey clouds giving us hope for more rain soon. The day had turned sunny by the time we reached Otter Tail Prairie, but the prairie itself was a welcome surprise. Even though ditches and depressions which had once been wetter were dry now, grasses were still green, and a blue bottle gentian beckoned from the roadside. We wandered the prairie hoping for pleated gentian, which is listed as growing there. We found lots of gentian, all bottle, some with dried up buds and blossoms but many blooming brightly. Pink prairie onion, purple northern plains blazing star, yellow goldenrods, pale blue asters, and the leaves of silvery scurfpea made a quilt of color in the long green grasses bending in the wind. Finding this greener (though still drier than usual) prairie made our hearts glad.
We had wondered how a dry hill prairie would do in a dry year, and walking across the brittle grass of Yellow Bank Hills SNA we couldn’t tell much difference from when we visited last September. We found dotted blazing star blooming along with blue vervain and lots of goldenrods. Although we didn’t identify the velvety goldenrod we were hoping for, we did figure out how to tell the difference between cutleaf ironplant and hairy false goldenaster, which at first glance can look similar to us: hairy false goldenaster has hairy lance-like leaves, while cutleaf ironplant’s leaves are divided into many smaller segments.
From green to dry to green to dry, it was a weekend mostly of prairies in a dry year. After 775 miles of driving, no bog adder’s mouth, no pleated gentian, no velvety goldenrod. But this year we’ve managed to check many other flowers off of our wish list, and we are already starting next year’s wish list. Even in a year of drought, as wildflower chasers we live in hope.