Prairie on the Rocks

August 2, 2020

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

Morton Outcrops Scientific and Natural Area is a gift from the glaciers.  When glacial River Warren emptied out glacial Lake Agassiz 10,000 years ago, the vast torrent exposed some of the oldest known bedrock in Minnesota–3.6 billion years old. On a perfect August day we drove out to Morton to see these ancient knobs of rock rising up.  

The rocks are Morton gneiss, a kind of granite, swirled with bands of pink and grey and white in wildly gorgeous patterns. Rainwater collects in slight depressions in the rock and in potholes formed by the force of the glacial river, and in these ephemeral pools plants grow. We identify four of them as Englemann’s spikerush, false pennyroyal, thyme-leaved spurge, rock spikemoss, and small-flowered fameflower, but there are many more new-to-us plants we’ve yet to learn. We don’t find any of the rare plants that grow here, but we do find two frogs soaking in a pool on top of the highest outcrop, the water around their throats rippling. How did frogs get up on these high rocks in the middle of a dry prairie?

We know how we got here:  on a path through the surrounding prairie, past leadplant, hoary vervain, grey-headed coneflower, stiff goldenrod, bee balm, prairie onion, and orange butterfly-weed with the biggest butterfly weed seed pods we’ve ever seen (plus something we didn’t identify with sticky seedpods that clung to our boots and socks and pants).  The prairie rose up, and we climbed the sloping rock surfaces to gaze at the view in all directions. The rock outcrops themselves are mini-habitats.  Tiny long-leaf bluets grow along cracks in the rock, and brittle prickly pear are tucked away in crevices. Wherever a bit of soil can collect or a pool of water fill up, something will grow. We saw so many plants we we still need to identify, which we will do very soon, and everything we saw was pretty amazing!

We’d hoped to see prairie bush clover which is both federally threatened and also state threatened, but we couldn’t venture far from the rock surfaces into the surrounding grasses and forbs without encountering poison ivy higher than our hiking boots.  Normally we’d wear our rubber boots for protection, but rubber boots don’t work so well for scrambling up on ancient rock.

The rocks themselves held plenty to look at, the wind blew, the sky stretched over us, and we felt as though we were on top of the world.  

And the frogs? Who knows what you’ll find in an ephemeral pool on top of a rock outcrop in a dry prairie?  The world is full of surprising questions.

And maybe surprising answers to questions we didn’t even know to ask.

Prime Prairie Day

July 11, 2020
Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

Asclepius hirtella.  Prairie milkweed, the last of the milkweeds in Minnesota that we had yet to see.  Technically Minnesota has fourteen milkweeds, but purple milkweed is most likely extirpated, not seen in the state in over a hundred years. Prairie milkweed is almost as rare in Minnesota–it’s listed as state threatened and grows at only a few places in Mower County. 

But flowers don’t recognize borders, so when we learned that prairie milkweed grew just across the Iowa border in Hayden Prairie, a 242-acre state preserve near Lime City, we couldn’t resist trying to find it.

The day was prairie prime:  temperatures in the nineties, damp heat rising up from the ground to be blown away by intermittent prairie breezes.  The prairie itself bloomed gloriously, exuberant with leadplant, rattlesnake master, wild quinine, white wild indigo, black-eyed Susan, and the umbels of prairie shooting stars gone to seed.  From pictures we’d studied we thought we were looking for a tall plant with narrow, long, almost vertical leaves, and we scanned the prairie for anything that pointed up above the other plants. While the sun baked us and sweat dripped off the wet ends of our hair we trekked through first one area, then another while insects buzzed and butterflies pollinated.   Nothing even remotely resembled what we were looking for. Not all our searches end successfully, of course, and it was still a good day to be out in the prairie, marveling at the richness of earth left to its own devices. 

Tired, hot and hungry, we decided to look through one last section where we’d seen masses of large yellow lady’s-slippers on our last visit.   Maybe the ground there was a little wetter and more conducive both to the prairie milkweed and also to the western prairie fringed orchid we’d been told grew at Hayden. We’d do a quick survey before heading home in air-conditioned comfort.

This parcel of prairie bloomed, too, but no orchids and no prairie milkweeds in sight.  Then we spotted a plant that looked a little different from anything we’d seen, although nothing like what we’d pictured.  This plant was only a couple of feet tall with long, narrow leaves that didn’t grow vertically, and its shriveled blossom made it hard to determine what the flower had looked like when blooming.  Prairie milkweed and green milkweed have enough similarities to make it easy to confuse the two, although green milkweed wasn’t listed s growing at Hayden Prairie.  So what were we seeing?  

We weren’t sure, but since where one plant grows it’s a good bet others might be nearby, we spread out to investigate.  Minutes later, we found a similar plant in full bloom with the distinctive balls of blossoms. Who cared about being tired or hot or hungry—we had found a prairie milkweed!

More searching revealed another, then another, then another prairie milkweed, demure in the grass. In all we counted fifteen plants in various stages of bloom.  We’d been wrong about the height and wrong about the leaves, but there was no mistaking the delicate purplish-green flower clusters. 

And though we didn’t find western prairie fringed orchid in the preserve itself, a nearby ditch revealed seven of them, from bud to bloom.

A rare milkweed, a rare orchid, a rare prairie day.  We grinned the whole (air-conditioned) drive home.


Bog Magic

July 7, 2020
Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

Long Lake in the early morning is glass-smooth, but there is nothing smooth about paddling around it.  Long Lake (at Long Lake Conservation Center in Aitkin) is in the process of turning into land. We’ve come for several years now to see the orchids and other boggish flowers that bloom in the floating bog around the edges of the lake, and each year the lake is muckier.  Ragged islands of loose soil lie just below the water surface, lily pads abound, colonies of mosses and sundew gradually cover over discarded or abandoned beaver logs.  Some day, not in our lifetimes, the lake will fill in, and trees will grow where we’re canoeing. But for now, we’re happy to paddle (and sometimes pole) our way through the muckier places, because the edge of the lake is the most amazing bog habitat we’ve ever seen.  And who would want to hurry past that?  Not us.

Tuberous grass-pink and rose pogonia orchids bloom brightly in the thick green growth.  Yellow swamp candles and wispy white cotton grass poke up. Purple pitcher plant flowers show us where to look for the plants’ low, specialized leaves that lure and dissolve insects.  Early morning dew dots the ends of sundew’s glandular hairs, making them look like beautiful little alien creatures.  In one small section of lake edge we find pitcher plant, bladderwort, and sundew (almost in bloom), three of Minnesota’s four kinds of carnivorous plants in a row, each luring lunch in their own way.  

Bright yellow pond-lily and American white waterlily dot the surface. All across the water the single flowers of water-shield look like tiny crowns.  These purplish-brown flowers open for only two days each. A brief breeze ruffles the stamens in the middle of the “crowns” like hair blowing in the wind. 

A beaver swims silently, two loons make sure to keep between us and their fuzzy brown chicks, frogs jump from lily pad to lily pad, then splash into the water. We glide (as much as the muck allows) silently around the shore, so grateful we can be here, now, a part of this morning, this lake, this abundance of orchids and sundew and light and water.  Luckily for us, lakes turning into land (a process explained in this month’s Conservation Volunteer as terrestrialization) takes years and years, and we’ll be coming back to Long Lake to paddle the edges as long as the lake allows.

As we’re driving away from the Center we spot stalks of elliptical shinleaf in the woods and stop to investigate.  From the top of a hill we see another trail leading to a short boardwalk, so, of course, we make our way down to the boardwalk to check it out.  Across the boardwalk the trail leads uphill again, but off to one side toward the lake we see another bog (or more of the same one) dotted with so many tuberous grass-pink orchids we quit counting them, along with plenty of rose pogonia, Labrador tea, and wild calla gone to seed, all growing among soft green tamarack trees and sphagnum moss in shades of red and green.

Bogs are magical places, so silent it’s easy to think the deep blankets of moss actually soak up sounds.  Silently we soak up this new bog, a bonus bog, and feel as though this morning we have been touched by bog magic.