A Million Milkweeds More or Less

July 5, 2020

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

On a hot, sunny day in July—a prairie day if ever there was one—we set off for Schaefer Prairie, a 160-acre remnant protected by the Nature Conservancy, where two showy milkweed plants had been sighted a few years ago.  Minnesota is home to fourteen species of milkweed, although one of the fourteen, purple milkweed, hasn’t been recorded in the state for over a hundred years.  We’ve seen eleven of the other thirteen milkweeds so far, leaving just prairie milkweed, which is rare, and showy milkweed which grows mainly in the western part of the state. The covid-19 pandemic has kept us closer to home this year, but we were hopeful that we could still find the showy milkweed without driving across the state. 

Schaefer prairie was bursting with flowers— showy tick-trefoil, prairie phlox, white prairie clover, purple prairie clover, smartweed, Virginia mountain mint, and lots and lots of milkweed. Butterfly-weed lit up the prairie in shades from orange to red, whorled milkweed bloomed near the edge of the road, and dark pink swamp milkweed punctuated the wetter places. Patches of Sullivant’s milkweed grew so densely that the sweet scent rose up from the hot earth and rolled over us.  

Surely in all of that milkweed, some of it would be showy. Surely we’d know it when we saw it since photos showed a kind of cross between common milkweed and a Chihuly sculpture with pointed pink hoods that seems to spiral out from the flowers.

Butterflies flitted, birds swooped, insects buzzed, and we looked closely at milkweed after milkweed.  Were these leaves the right size? Did this flower’s pink hoods look slightly longer than that plant’s flowers? After two hours of close observation of more Sullivant’s milkweed blossoms than we’d ever seen before, we conceded defeat.  But the day was still early, not yet noon, and we decided to drive north to two other locations where showy milkweed sightings have been documented. 

In a likely section of Regal Meadow, another Nature Conservancy site, we found wood lilies, butterfly-weed, more Sullivant’s milkweed, pale-spike lobelia, and prairie clovers blooming, but no showy milkweed. Still hopeful, we drove toward our last location, going slowly on the empty back roads and scanning the roadsides and ditches for any promising-looking milkweed.

One plant looked oh-so-slightly different, so we pulled over to investigate.  Close up the flowers’ pink hoods did look longer, and the stemless, dusty green leaves felt, well, felt-like when we rubbed them. Only one plant was blooming, but one was all we needed.  We had found showy milkweed close to home!

But why stop with one?  At our last stop, Roscoe Prairie Scientific and Natural Area, and wandered among Virginia mountain mint, leadplant, purple and white prairie clovers, coreopsis, small blue lobelia, larkspur, a few white spires of Culver’s root, and death camas, but hardly a milkweed did we see.  Still, it was a gorgeous rich prairie, and we were glad we’d made the trip.  Ready for home and bed, we headed back to the car, stopping to investigate what looked like leadplant gone to seed but turned out to be false indigo. And there, next to the false indigo plant, we saw two more showy milkweed blooming. We burst into grins.  Not one, but three showy milkweeds to add to our list.

Not every search ends so well, but this one did, making us happy for prairies, perseverance, and luck.  A prairie day rich in milkweeds and friendship.  A day well spent.   

A Little Help from our Friends

June 17 and 21, 2020

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

We love sharing our passion for wildflowers with other wildflower lovers, and we’re always grateful when folks share with us.  Because of peoples’ generosity with their knowledge we’ve seen western fringed prairie orchid, narrow-leaved milkweed, and wild lupine just to mention a few. This past week two different people took us wildflower-chasing, showing us flowers in places we would never have found on our own.

On Wednesday we drove down to Rose Creek, and botanical wanderer Kenneth Hartwig took us along local highways by the Shooting Star Trail where native flowers flourish in the ditches.  (The Shooting Star Trail was built along an old railroad-right-of-way, and much of the land is a native prairie remnant.)  He showed us wild sweet William and glade mallow, both of which we’d been yearning to see, as well as tuberous Indian plantain, great Indian plantain, downy phlox, wild quinine, and white wild indigo among other prairie flowers. He also took us to Minnesota’s only known population of state-threatened prairie shooting stars (he and his wife Becky counted over 200 of them blooming this spring). The shooting stars had gone to seed, but now we know where to come next year to see them in their glory.  

Because we were close to Hayden Prairie, just over the border into Iowa, and because it was a fine prairie day, hot, sunny, and windy, we made our way there. A few weeks past we’d seen prairie shooting stars in bloom at Hayden prairie, more than we could possibly count, but these, too, were gone to seed, looking a little like the spokes of upturned umbrellas.  On that previous visit we’d also seen some kind of lady’s-slipper leaves, and we hoped the plant would be flowering so we could identify which lady’s-slipper. While we didn’t find that particular clump of leaves, we found first one, then several, then a wealth of large yellow lady’s-slippers in bloom, more than we’d ever seen before in one location.  Most of the flowers were past their brief prime, but all of them shone bright buttery yellow under the bushes and among the grasses.  An added bonus was our first Michigan lily of the season—which Kelly at first thought was an orange flag marking something special.

Sunday Dana Boyle from the Saint Paul Garden Club where we recently gave a Zoom talk offered to take us on a tour of Tamarack Nature Preserve, which has the southernmost known stand of naturally occurring tamarack in Minnesota. On the boardwalk and path through this rich fen Dana pointed out wild calla, long-leaved starwort, and marsh cinquefoil in bloom, along with arrowhead leaves, horsetail, an assortment of sedges and other fen residents. New to us was shinleaf (Pyrola elliptica), tucked under a tree, its flowers white in the rainy green light. We finished our tour just before the threatened rain came sluicing down.

We’re always grateful when other wildflower lovers share their knowledge with us. Thank you, Kenneth and Dana. 

Two More Milkweeds

JUNE 13, 2020


It is hard to think about, much less write about,  searching for wildflowers when the whole world is crying out for racial justice after George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis.  We’ve been protesting, working to support protesters, and making masks to help people stay healthy in the midst of the ongoing pandemic. But when Kelly needed to drive down to Wisconsin we stopped on the way at Pin Oak Prairie Scientific and Natural Area in hope of spotting two uncommon milkweeds in our effort to find all of Minnesota’s milkweeds, (minus one which is most likely extirpated).

We’d searched here last summer for clasping milkweed and woolly milkweed, following directions from a botanist friend, but both milkweed species were long past blooming, and the prairie had grown so high we couldn’t even find the plants’ leaves.

This time we were hoping to at least spot the leaves so we could come back later to see them in bloom. We had barely searched the hillside for five minutes, though, when we found several wooly milkweed plants with flowers almost open. Shouts and high fives (socially distant ones)!  

Would we be lucky enough to find clasping milkweed as well?  We wandered along the hillside peering closely at any milkweeds without finding anything that resembled the pictures on minnesotawildflowers.info. Then, almost at the top of the hill, we found them, their wavy clasping leaves and long flower stalks unmistakable—once we’d seen them, we would always recognize them.  Kelly thought they looked like lighting fixtures from the fifties, and they reminded me of  visitors from outer space. 

A day rich in milkweeds got richer when, farther down the highway, we stopped to climb a goat prairie and found narrow-leaved milkweed and green milkweed both in bloom.  Add to that the not-yet-blooming Sullivant’s milkweed we’d seen at Pin Oak Prairie, and it was a hat-trick-plus-two milkweed day.

Now we are back working at our jobs, sewing masks, doing what we can to work for racial justice, grateful for the respite of climbing in prairie and finding rare and uncommon milkweeds blooming in the sun.