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!

Even More Orchids

July 2 & 3, 2021

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

Minnesota’s orchid season always feels brief to us.  Many orchids bloom for only a short time, deep in wooded swamps or bogs in the northern half of the state, and some orchids (I’m talking about you, bog adder’s-mouth) are so small that we might never find them.  But we love the looking and the places we look, and we take every opportunity we can to go searching.  

Lavender streaked the sky as I drove to pick up Kelly at 5 a.m. and we set off to look for even more orchids before the orchid season is over.  We were headed for Iron Springs Bog Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) , one of our favorites places, but our first stop was Roscoe Prairie SNA, a native prairie remnant, to look for showy milkweed.  Last year around the fourth of July we had tentatively identified two plants at Roscoe Prairie as showy milkweed, and we wanted to verify that identification.  

We arrived at the prairie around seven a.m. Sunlight silvered the leaves of leadplant, and birdsong sweetened the air.  This was our first high summer prairie visit of the year, and we walked among leadplant’s purple flowers, black-eyed Susan, mountain death camas, purple prairie clover, white prairie clover, blazing star in bud, wood lily—a whole cast of native prairie flowers. The smell of Virginia mountain mint broke out from under our feet in places as we walked.  Whenever we came to a milkweed blooming we peered closely at the flowers.  Were these “horns” on the blossoms pointed and longer than on other milkweed?  Did the leaves feel smooth on top and hairy underneath? Were the plants short, only two to three feet tall? We weren’t sure, but we thought we could confirm a couple of plants as showy.  Leaving the prairie behind us, we drove on north.  Along Highway 71 some milkweed caught Kelly’s eye, and two u-turns later we pulled up beside milkweed whose flowers had long pointed “horns,” leaves that were shiny on top and hairy underneath, and were only about two feet tall.  Defintiely showy milkweed.  Looking at the flowers, we could tell that the ones we had seen earlier at Roscoe Prairie were definitely not showy milkweed.  Still, we were glad for our first native prairie morning of the year.

Another quick stop along the way revealed western spotted coralroot, striped coralroot gone to seed, ram’s-head lady’s-slipper gone to seed, round-leaved orchid gone to seed, and lesser rattlesnake-plantain, its distinctive leaves so small and buried in the moss that we only spied it because of the budding flower stalks.

The main destination of the day, Iron Springs Bog never disappoints, and we were barely out of the car before we saw our first northern green bog-orchid.  Farther down the road we came across a long-bracted orchid still in bloom with tiny flowers whose long lower lips, like tongues, must give the orchid its common name of frog orchid. Showy lady’s-slipper bloomed in the low area across the road, some flowers just opening, many already past their prime.  We followed a path under the trees in a section of the SNA we hadn’t yet explored and found ourselves in utterly orchid territory.  

Our first find was tiny, a pale green orchid with a single leaf whose identity we weren’t sure of.  Nearby were gone-to-seed stemless lady’s-slippers and gone-to-seed early coralroot.  A tiny green adder’s-mouth caught our eye, then a orchid we thought might be bluntleaved rein-orchid and another we thought might be a small green wood-orchid. Crossing to the other side of the road we found tall green bog-orchid blooming robustly.

Across the bridge in another section of the SNA we found more showy lady’s-slipper, more tall green bog-orchid along with northern green bog-orchid (thanks to a friend we can now tell these two apart), and heart-leaved twayblade.  By the end of the day we counted up fourteen different orchids, including two we think are new for us to see here in Minnesota.  

It’s a good day when we find an orchid, much less fourteen of them.  We’ll verify our identifications of the ones we’re unsure of, and we’ll keep searching for the ones we have yet to see (still talking about you, bog adder’s-mouth). We love the searching as much as the finding, and we can’t think of a better place to spend a wildflower-chasing day than in a bog or a forested swamp (with good, effective bug spray).