Oh, Orbiculata!

July 18, 2021

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

This has been a summer of orchid searching and (mostly) finding.

As our list of orchids we haven’t seen yet shrinks, we made yet another trip up north in search of bog adder’s-mouth and large round-leaved orchid, also known as lesser round-leaved orchid, a confusion of common names that we resolved by using its scientific name, Platanthera orbiculata (or just orbiculata).

First stop Beagle and Wolf Books and Bindery, a wonderful independent bookstore in Park Rapids, for a signing of Begin with a Bee, the new picture book that Liza Ketchum, Jackie Briggs Martin, and I wrote together.

After the book signing we headed toward Iron Springs Bog Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) to look for the rare, elusive, and tiny bog adder’s-mouth. A few hours of very close observation later, we still hadn’t found bog adder’s-mouth, but what’s not to like about an afternoon spent among mossy green hummocks and orchids from tall northern bog orchid to tiny green adder’s-mouth?

Kelly had booked what might have been the last available room in the area at the historic Douglas Lodge in Itasca State Park. As the sun went down and the evening light stretched across Lake Itasca we felt transported back in time.

Sunday morning we headed for Paul Bunyan State Forest where we followed a path that a friend had told us about into a white cedar bog where he had seen orbiculata. Our first finds under the cedar trees were the diminutive white spires of lesser rattlesnake plantain in small and lovely bloom. Before long we saw our first orbiculata, then another, and another, and another, their pale flowers almost ethereal in the light under the cedars. We wandered from orchid to orchid, grateful to the friend who had sent us here. 

Still on our wish-to-see list are several of the ladies’-tresses, one of which grows in sandy soil under jack pines. We were only half an hour from Badoura Jack Pine Woodland SNA, a place we’d never visited, so based on the name and a whim we turned down a sandy road to check it out.  

The road bordered the edge of the SNA, and we drove by section after section of trees, some sections tall, some sections shorter.  Jack pine cones need the heat of fire to open and scatter seeds, so if fire burns an area all the trees from the seeds that germinate will be roughly the same age. Finally we parked by an area of the tallest trees and wandered in.  The sandy soil still supported green plants, including an abundance of blueberry bushes with the tiniest blueberries we’d ever seen. A small white flower turned out not to be a ladies’-tresses but a tessellated rattlesnake plantain, another flower on our wish-to-see list.  A cedar bog with orbiculata, a not-quite-random stop to wander among tall jack pines, and an orchid surprise: a great way to end a weekend of orchid searching—and a very satisfying amount of orchid finding. 

Schaefer Showy

July 14, 2021

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

Often our prairie visits are hot, dry, and sunny, but Schaefer Prairie in the early evening after a rain was cool, wet, and cloudy, perfect for going on a milkweed search.  A friend had told us that showy milkweed grew here, and we’d looked for it unsuccessfully last year on one of those hot, sunny days.  Now we wandered the prairie in rain pants and boots, not only because of the wet grass but also because of the poison ivy that, alas, also thrives here.

But so do so many other prairie flowers, their colors rich in the saturated light—grey-headed coneflower, purple prairie clover, white prairie clover, wild bergamot, Virginia mountain mint, leadplant, marsh skullcap, silvery scurf pea, Culver’s root, prairie blazing star budding into bloom.  We admired and noted and photographed, but it was milkweed we most wanted to see.

Minnesota lists fourteen different kinds of milkweed, and we’ve seen thirteen of them without much hope of the fourteenth, purple milkweed, last recorded in Minnesota over 125 years ago. The deep magenta flowers of swamp milkweed were the first milkweed we spotted in our evening search, then butterfly weed with its vivid orange-to-red flowers.  Sullivant’s milkweed and common milkweed bloomed as well.  It’s taken us a while to be relatively sure of the differences between common milkweed and Sullivant’s milkweed since both have similar pink clusters of flowers, but we’ve learned to look at the leaves– Sullivant’s milkweed leaves are more upright and feel smooth instead of furry. 

Four milkweeds in one prairie felt like a wealth of milkweeds, but we still had hopes of finding showy milkweed, which is more common in Minnesota’s western prairies.  After searching the wetter end of Schaefer prairie we headed for the more uphill, drier end.  Evening light rolled across the land, a sweet breeze blew, birds called, and we meandered, content just to be out in a prairie evening.  

Then we saw it.

One showy milkweed, its long flower “horns” unmistakable, its flowers edging towards being past their prime but still vivid pink against the prairie green.  High fives and whoops ensued. Showy milkweed forms colonies, so we looked around for more plants.  We didn’t find any blooming, but the leaves of some nearby plants made us hopeful for more showy milkweed another year.

We drove home full of prairie, rich light after rain, and an evening of many milkweeds.

Including the Schaefer showy.

Not-so-barren Barrens

July 12, 2021

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

Rushford Sand Barrens Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) is anything but barren.  Located in the driftless area of Minnesota, untouched by the most recent glaciers, it encompasses sand prairie, bluff prairie, forest, black oak woods, and a wealth of flowers.

We’ve visited the site several times but never made it to the central valley, mainly because getting there involves a lot of up before heading down.  Just getting to the first sand prairie involves a steep, steep climb, then a gentler descent onto a hillside where last year we saw native lupine blooming in abundance. Reaching the second prairie takes an even steeper climb before the descent into the central valley.  We’ve tried this second climb twice now, and both times, about halfway up, we’ve craned our necks back, looked at all the steepness still to climb, and voted to go back down into the first valley. This time, though, we went with Brian O’Brien, who knows the ways of Rushford Sand Barrens and so much more.

We’d come to try to see goat’s-rue, a flower of special concern in Minnesota, and we found a single flower cluster still in bloom amid the leaves of plants and flowers gone to seed. I’ve wanted to see this elegantly beautiful flower ever since I came across a picture of it in a wildflower guide years ago.  Now, seeing the leaves alongside the path, we realized we’d walked by the not-blooming plants before without realizing what they were until Brian pointed them out. This year’s heat has speeded up the bloom time on many flowers; next year we’ll try coming earlier in hopes of an abundance of blooms, but it was thrilling to finally see even one flower cluster blooming.

We wandered along a path through the black oak trees and past bright yellow puccoon, flowering spurge, wild bergamot, and one last wild lupine blooming. At the bottom of the first valley we eyed the (for us, so far) unclimbable climb.  But Brian headed up, so we followed.  About halfway up the hill he turned and followed a trail that paralleled the ridge.  Soon we saw why.  As we went parallel to the ridge across the side of the hill, the top of the ridge was sloping down in the same direction. Eventually our path and the top of the sloping ridge would meet without any more up on our part. Along the way we passed round-leaved hepatica leaves, sharp-leaved hepatica leaves, and a single downy rattlesnake plantain in bud. As we came out of the trees heading toward the valley Brian pointed out the tiny bright pink flower of racemed milkwort, one of the milkworts we’d been searching for.

The central valley sloped down into more sand prairie surrounded by hills and forest and overlooked by rocky bluffs. Clammy ground cherry and leadplant bloomed in the dry, dry sand. Brian pointed out a new-to-us flower, false gromwell or marbleseed, and told us the flowers stay so tightly closed that bumblebees must fight their way inside. Far away from anything besides sand, flowers, grasses, trees, and silence we felt as though we had entered another, secret world. Who knew a sand prairie on a hot, sunny day could be so magical?

Once we had traversed, descended, ascended, and descended our way back to the cars, we made one more stop at a roadside sand prairie where Brian showed us Illinois tick-trefoil, an uncommon flower in Minnesota growing at the northern edge of its range.

Best part of the day:  spending it with someone who generously shared his deep knowledge and love of native wildflowers with us.  Thank you, Brian O’Brien!