A Day Well Spent

August 16, 2019

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

The day began with darkness and damp as we headed out at 5 a.m. for Seminary Fen Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) near Chaska, eager to catch the first daylight.  Fens are one of our rarest wetlands and we were eager to explore. The fen itself lay below a prairie area where goldenrod, monarda, and evening primrose bloomed, but try as we might, we couldn’t find a way down to the fen through the barrier of buckthorn trees.  Path after path ended in a tangle of branches and thorns, and by the time we finally broke through to the edge of the fen and crossed a creek into soggy, hummocky ground we had plenty of daylight but no flowers. It was a sweet morning anyway, fun to be up in the dark and searching for wildflowers, and we headed home knowing we’ll try again another time.

Fast forward an hour: Kelly calls me and says, “What about Falls Creek?  We could see if downy rattlesnake plantain is still blooming.”

“Great,” I say.  “I’ll see you at noon.”

Which is how we found ourselves leaving the sunny, hot prairie of Whispering Pines Park in Scandia behind us and wandering in the coolness under the tall trees of Falls Creek SNA.  We’ve been to Falls Creek many times before but seldom at this time of year—forests are usually for spring flowers, and once the canopy leafs out most flowers have finished their business.  We saw many leaves we could identify even though the plants were done blooming:  lily-leaved twayblade, prunella, starflower, bloodroot, Canada mayflower, hepatica, wild ginger. Some plants, like bluebead lily and Jack-in-the-pulpit, had distinctive seeds that helped identify them.

Along the path we also found several populations of downy rattlesnake plantain orchid that we’d never seen before, their distinctive green and white leaves vivid against the forest floor.  And finally, towards the end of the trail, we found a rattlesnake plantain orchid flower spike, then three more orchids blooming, then six more.  We felt rich in rattlesnake plantain.

We’ve hardly ever seen other people at the SNAs we visit, but a whole group of them came up the trail and turned out to be folks from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources on a hike. Experts on flowers, rushes, sedges, butterflies, geology—we were awed by the knowledge among them. When we learned that some of them had been instrumental in preserving Falls Creek as an SNA, we were grateful beyond measure.

From darkness and damp to dappled sunlight and orchids, a day well spent.

Among the Islands

August 9, 2019

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

Each summer for the last few years I’ve been lucky enough to go sailing with friends in Lake Superior. This year my friend Mary and I joined Mark, the sailboat-owning friend, at Rossport, Ontario, to sail on Lake Superior.  Wind, sun, sailing, hiking, rock hunting, swimming, wildflower searching, even a sauna—what better way to spend the days of summer?

On the way north to meet Mark, Mary and I stopped in Grand Marais where common butterwort’s yellow leaves crept over the rocks and tiny-flowered Hudson Bay eyebright bloomed. Both are arctic relicts or disjuncts, those plants that, thanks to the cold, wet, harsh climate of Superior’s shore, grow far from their main habitats farther north.

As we sailed we stopped to explore and hike among the scattered islands, where many of the flowers growing in woods and on rocks were familiar faces from Minnesota searches. It makes sense: flowers don’t stop at borders or even have to show their passports, and the forests and bedrock that make up Minnesota’s north shore don’t stop there, either.  We saw bunchberries, a few blooming but most already gone to red-berry seed; starflowers gone to seed; Canada mayflowers done blooming; the remnants of a lady’s-slipper orchid; bluebead lily with its blue beads of seed; one-flowered pyrola; wild sarsaparilla; Indian pipe; Labrador tea; alpine bistort; and blueberries (alas, not quite ripe yet but growing in abundance).

At CPR harbor we took a three-pitch hike with fixed ropes to the top of a bluff and passed at least fifty lesser rattlesnake plantain orchids blooming in the green, green moss. On a rocky projection in Woodbine Harbor we found three-toothed cinquefoil, shrubby cinquefoil, upland goldenrod, harebell, some new kind of saxifrage, and a beautiful purple vetch-like plant abuzz with bumblebees.  At Battle Island, our last stop before returning to Rossport, we came across black crowberry, Hudson Bay eyebright, and, on a rocky cliff slick with rain, encrusted saxifrage with its silvery-edged rosette of leaves—all arctic relicts.

I came for the sailing and the friendship (and the beaches rich with Lake Superior rocks), and I also found familiar flowering friends and new ones among the islands’ woods and rocky shores.



A Day Full of Prairies

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

July 27, 2019

This summer has been busy with bookstore visits, work, and just general life, so Kelly and I have been doing some separate wildflower searching as each of our schedules allows.   Today we finally had a chance to visit prairies together—three prairies, actually, and one sand barrens.

We started early and headed to Pin Oak Prairie Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) just outside of Chatfield on a morning sunny and cool and full of birdsong.  We had come with directions to help us find clasping milkweed and wooly milkweed (both of which, we knew, were no longer in bloom and so were trickier to spot).  We wandered through oak savannah, woods, and prairie until we found where our directions said these milkweeds grew. The sweet scent of common milkweed flowers filled the air, and a tiny frog sat on a milkweed leaf in almost perfect camouflage. We searched the hillside, which was awash with monarda, gray-headed coneflower, and whorled milkweed but no wooly milkweed or clasping milkweed could we find. No matter, we’ll come back earlier in the summer next year when the blooming plants might be easier to spot.

Our next prairie was in a ditch we spotted along the highway, rich with monarda, gray-head coneflower, rattlesnake master, culver’s root, and blazing star.  Across the highway in another roadside ditch we found vervain, more monarda, leadplant, pale-spike lobelia, lots and lots of rattlesnake master, Sullivant’s milkweed, and a cluster of leaves and seed pods that we tentatively identified as small white lady’s-slipper gone to seed.  Who knows what other wildflower wonders might grow in our roadside ditches and rights-of-way?

As a break from prairie in the heat of the day we stopped at Rushford Sand Barrens SNA and followed a trail that led straight up through the woods, down across a small prairie, and up through woods again until, looking up at how much more up was ahead, we turned around.  We were still on the hunt for clasping milkweed, but what we found instead was the “other monarda,” spotted beebalm, growing in the dry and sandy prairie section of the SNA.  Although many of the prairie and woodland flowers we saw had gone to seed, we also found lots of native lupine leaves and vowed to come back next spring to see the lupines in bloom.

Our third and last prairie of the day was Mound Prairie SNA, which is made up of three different goat prairies on separate hillsides.  We climbed only one hillside, and if we thought that Rushford Sand Barrens went up and up, that was nothing compared to Mound Prairie.  I used hands and feet  to scramble up the steep hillside past partridge pea, flowering spurge, monarda, spotted beebalm, whorled milkweed, lead plant, false blue indigo, stiff goldenrod, and coreopsis. Dotted across the hillside was a new-to-us blazing star, cylindrical blazing star, blooming brilliantly fuchsia.

High up on the hill we discovered green milkweed and, finally, narrow leaf milkweed with a seed pod, a plant that Kelly had seen in bloom a few weeks before and which was now, without its flowers, almost indistinguishable from the prairie grasses around it.

The sun beat down, the steep hillside sloped away, and I perched blissfully next to narrow leaved milkweed in its only known place in Minnesota. Saturated with sun and searching, we headed off to organic pizza at Suncrest Gardens.  A day well spent, splendid with wildflowers and friendship and laughter.   A day rich in prairies rich in flowers.




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?