In Search of Orchids

May 28 and 29, 2021
Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

Some trips are full of surprises.  Some are focused on specific goals.  But even the goal-directed trips can surprise us.

Memorial Day weekend has become a time when we head north searching for wildflowers.  Last year in the time of covid we didn’t go, so this year we were doubly eager to see what might be blooming.  We know that we can’t make a date with wildflowers, and this year’s timing has seemed early for some flowers, late for others.  But we drove north in hope of seeing some of the flowers on our wish list and visiting places we love.

Our first stop, an hour from the cities, was to look for putty-root orchid blooming.  Last fall, thanks to directions from a helpful friend, we’d seen putty-root’s distinctive crinkled leaves, blue-green against the fallen deciduous leaves of a forest. Putty-root die off in the winter, but knowing where we’d seen them gave us hope that we could find the flowers blooming.

A deciduous woods in late spring is not the same woods as it was in late fall.  Where sunlight fell through bare branches in November, now the leafed-in trees let in much less light, and we understood why ephemerals hurry to gather sunshine while they can. We followed the path to where we remembered seeing the orchid’s leaves, peering at the forest floor as we went for what we imagined was a diminutive orchid. Nodding trilliums bloomed, bloodroot leaves stood up, but although we’d seen quite a few putty-root leaves in the fall, we couldn’t seem to find any flowers. 

Then there they were, right in front of us, two putty-root orchids at least eighteen inches tall, their yellowish flowers tipped with purple. In the dark woods they stood up in all their slender glory, and we were grateful to be able to see them blooming.

Next stop: Itasca State Park, where we had read about a location for spotted coralroot. As we drove through the park we stopped again and again along the roadside to look at small yellow lady’s-slipper, large yellow lady’s-slipper, and large-flowered trillium. When we finally came to the trail where we hoped to find the spotted coralroot we hiked past Canada mayflower, wood anemone, and more blooming starflowers than we’d ever seen before.  The only spotted coralroot we could find was a previous year’s flower gone to seed. According to one source coralroot lives most of its life underground and flowers only when conditions are optimal.  Either we had come too early, or this was a non-optimal year, but now we knew where to look on future visits.

From Itasca State Park it’s only a few minute’s drive to Iron Springs Scientific and Natural Area (SNA), one of our all-time favorite places. Here we had GPS coordinates for striped coralroot, the show-stopper of coralroot orchids, and we hoped to catch it blooming. Here, too, though, the coralroot must have stayed underground waiting for optimal conditions to bloom in peppermint-striped splendor.   What we did see blooming:  abundant naked miterwort, marsh marigold, heart-leaved twayblade, three-leaf false Solomon’s seal, large-flowered bellwort, three-leaf goldthread, buckbean, starry false Solomon’s seal, wild sarsaparilla, Labrador tea, and early coralroot.  Many stemless lady’s-slippers from creamy pale buds to deep pink blossoms nodded gracefully, the air smelled fresh and piney, the ground along the trail squished under our feet, and a sweet breeze kept any bugs at bay.  

The next morning dawned with a sky striped coral against pale blue. Lake Bemidji State Boardwalk is another one of our favorite places. From the boardwalk you can see a hundred different plants, and signs along the way help to identify which ones are which.  The walk to reach the boardwalk was green with new leaves on the trees, and the lacy balls of wild sarsaparilla bloomed along with starflower and a few bright gaywings, which used to fool us into thinking they might be orchids.    

Eight different kinds of orchid bloom along the boardwalk at various times, and this morning we were lucky to see several stemless lady’s-slipper just coming into bloom and a single bright magenta dragon’s mouth blooming back behind a tree.  Purple pitcher plants with new tiny pitchers growing up between the older ones made rosettes on the mossy surface of the bog.  Several purple pitcher plants raised long flower stalks with ball-shaped buds at the tops that will open into bright pinwheel-shaped flowers.  

The air was cool, 45 degrees according to a thermometer at the end of the boardwalk that registered both air temperature and also water temperature down below the surface of the bog.  This morning the difference between air and bog water was a mere twelve degrees, but on hotter days the difference can be much greater.  In the cold acidic watery world of bogs the plants we were seeing, from bog rosemary to Labrador tea to tamarack trees, are hardy, tough survivors.  

The old-growth trees at the Lost Forty SNA, our next stop, are survivors, too.  Incorrectly surveyed as a lake in the cadastral survey that marked out our country into townships and sections, the area was overlooked by timber companies who had no interest in what appeared on maps to be water.  Ignored and overlooked, these trees kept growing until a re-survey in 1960 corrected the error.  Now the forest is protected, and a walk among the tall, tall pines is like a walk back in time.

Winds swayed the treetops high overhead as we searched for striped coral-root, but here, too, it appeared that coralroot might be taking a pass on appearing above ground this year. We did see early coralroot, starflower, bluebead lily, bunchberry, gaywings, and rose twisted-stalk, along with a new-to-us orchid already in bud with two large round basal leaves.  A consult with orchid books narrowed possibilities to two: either a hooker’s orchid or a large round-leaved orchid.  Since the books informed us that the large round-leaved orchid bloomed in July and August while the hooker’s orchid bloomed in June and July, we tentatively named it as a hooker’s orchid.  We’ll come back in a few weeks to see it blooming, but either way we’ve added a new orchid to our list of orchids we’ve seen.

The trip began with orchids and ended with orchids.  In between, we saw flowers we’d hoped to see and flowers that surprised us, either by blooming or by not yet blooming. One of the joys of wildflower chasing—we never know for sure what we’ll see.  But we know that, whatever we find (or don’t find), wildflower chasing fills up our hearts.

Prime Time Prairie

May 23, 2021

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

Usually we drive to go flower chasing together, but Sunday we were meeting in Lime Springs, Iowa, Kelly coming up from Tennessee where she’d been visiting her daughter and new grandbaby, me coming down from Minneapolis where I have been working on the book launch for my new collaborative picture book, Begin with a Bee.  The day leaned in and out of rain all the way to the Iowa border. Overcast skies are good for photography, rain not so much, and Iowa obliged with rain stopping right across the state line.

We rendezvoused at a gas station and drove the last few miles to Hayden Prairie Preserve, 240 acres of tall grass prairie and the place where we’d first seen prairie shooting star last year. While prairie shooting star is more abundant overall in the U. S. than jeweled shooting star, in Minnesota prairie shooting star exists in only one known location. 

Hayden Prairie never disappoints.  This day prairie shooting star stole the show, multitudes of pale flowers in bud and in bloom. Plains wild indigo had also begun its elegant pale yellow flowering, and golden Alexanders burst like sunshine. Down in last year’s dried grasses more yellow star-grass than we’d ever seen before bloomed like a fallen sky. Here and there prairie blue-eyed grass bloomed, too. The rain held off, but the moisture-laden air made for vivid, saturated colors–prairie violet, bastard toadflax, bright orange puccoon, so many prairie shooting stars in whites and pinks—the prairie was alive with flowers now and with the promise of flowers to come. 

A smaller separate section of the prairie had been burned since we’d visited: last year’s dried grasses had vanished, and the ground between the plants showed black. Here, too, we saw prairie shooting star, plains wild indigo, bastard toadflax, puccoon, prairie violet, prairie ragwort, yellow star-grass, and prairie blue-eyed grass along with swamp saxifrage and prairie smoke.  But the highlight in this prairie patch was the hundreds of yellow lady’s-slipper leaves, some plants barely two inches tall, some clusters ready to burst into bloom.  We tiptoed our way along, marveling at their abundance and finally defaulting to the road so that we didn’t risk stepping on any orchid leaves.  Even the roadside ditch was beautiful with swamp saxifrage and the occasional cluster of yellow lady’s-slipper leaves and buds.

Roadside ditches were our next stop back in Minnesota. Across the road from what we have come to call the Rich Ditch we checked on a clump of yellow lady’s-slipper leaves that we’d seen in previous years.  Last year that ditch had been mowed, and we hadn’t found the leaves, but this year we were glad to see that they were back in a huge and healthy clump.  On the other side of the road in Rich Ditch proper we found wild geranium in bloom along with yellow star-grass, prairie blue-eyed grass, swamp saxifrage, rattlesnake master leaves, and edible valerian. A burst of yellow drew us to the far side of the ditch along a strip of woods and turned out to be wood betony, its flowers spiraling cheerfully. As we walked along the wooded edge of the ditch, we discovered more and more leaves of yellow lady’s-slipper that we hadn’t ever noticed before. 

Down the road a piece we stopped at another roadside ditch, where the only remaining prairie shooting stars in Minnesota grew. A friend had shown us this site last year, but the flowers had already gone to seed, and we were eager to see them in bloom.  See them we did, growing among the usual suspects of yellow star-grass, blue-eyed grass, edible valerian, rattlesnake master leaves, puccoon, bastard toadflax, and a single prairie smoke gone to graceful gossamer seed. Seeing prairie shooting star blooming in Minnesota has long been on our wish list, and we were glad and grateful to finally find them.

Our way back to the cities took us right by Iron Horse Prairie Scientific and Natural Area (SNA), a parcel of native prairie, so of course we had to check for small white lady’s-slipper, which we’d seen there the previous year.  And there they were, small and delicate (and white) and so fresh that some flowers hadn’t yet dropped open.  Other prairie plants blossomed—golden Alexanders, edible valerian, prairie ragwort, yellow star-grass, and prairie blue-eyed grass. But it was the small white lady’s-slippers that drew us across the prairie as we spied flower after flower in singles and clumps—too many to keep count. 

Finally, in a red Subaru and a white Subaru, we drove on back to the cities, our heads and our hearts full of prairie. 

The day leaned in and out of rain all the way home.

Flower Chasing East to West

May 9, 2021

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

Twinleaf is a flower that blooms so briefly that it’s easy to miss. We’d seen its leaves and seeds a few years ago along a rustic road in Wisconsin, then found frost-nipped flowers the next year but had yet to visit at the right time to see the flowers in full bloom.  

This year we kept as close a watch as we could from a distance of an hour or more away.  On a trip down to the rustic road a week earlier we had seen twinleaf shoots a few inches tall which gave us hope for flowers if we timed things right. The first Thursday evening in May as daylight lingered we made a mad dash down to Wisconsin to see if we could finally catch twinflower blooming. White large-flowered trillium and yellow large-flowered bellwort dotted the hillsides under the trees, and Dutchman’s breeches and squirrel corn still bloomed.

And so did twinleaf.

A small clump of the distinctive leaves held three flowers so delicate that a passing breeze dislodged a petal. We had remembered many more leaves of plants from previous years and searching along the roadside revealed a few additional clumps, one already gone to seed, one with no trace of bud, flower, or seed.  Where did the other plants we remembered disappear to?  We didn’t know, but we were ecstatic to have finally seen three twinleaf flowers in their brief bloom.

Friday afternoon we set out in the opposite direction, west across the state almost to the border, in search of two more uncommon flowers:  yellow prairie violet (state threatened) and Missouri milkvetch (state special concern). 

Yellow prairie violet has only been found in a few places in Minnesota, in part because it is at the eastern edge of its range and in part because of habitat destruction.  Missouri milkvetch, also at the extreme edge of its range and facing habitat threats, is found only in nine Minnesota counties. Both plants are listed as growing in Yellow Bank Hills Scientific and Natural Area (SNA), 78 acres of grassy hillsides and gravelly blowouts on the far western side of the state. 

We arrived at the SNA on a sunny, windy afternoon and crunched our way across last year’s grass to the gravelly hilltops where we’d seen the leaves of Missouri milkvetch on a previous visit. Early in May, we quickly realized, the best way to explore a dry hill prairie was to think small and look closely. Underneath last year’s dried grasses we caught small glimpses of green leaves that tantalized us:  what will they be once they flower? 

A few prairie smoke buds were opening, and here and there tiny white flowers bloomed. (We later learned that one of the small flowers was probably allium textile, wild white onion—thank you, Derek.) We skirted the places where the prickly red stems of prairie rose clustered together and spotted an occasional Northern Idaho biscuitroot’s ferny leaves, although most of the flowers had finished blooming for the year. 

Near the top of the hills we spotted the lovely purple blooms and sprawling silky leaves of Missouri milkvetch, first one plant, then another, then another.  A similar low-growing plant nearby with pale flowers we tentatively identified as lotus milkvetch, another new-to-us find.  And on the side of a hill tucked into the grasses we found one, then two, then four yellow prairie violets with lance-shaped leaves, all blooming brightly in the early prairie. 

Two uncommon plants on one hillside—well worth the drive from one side of the state to the other. 

That evening we camped at Lac Qui Parle State Park. Lac Qui Parle translates as “lake that talks,” and we listened to geese call as the sun set a brilliant orange over the river below the campground.

Saturday morning dawned as though someone had set the sky on fire. The thermometer read 39 degrees as we set out for Mound Spring Prairie SNA, another SNA close to the South Dakota border. Hills rolled over the landscape with new green sprouts poking up through last year’s grasses, and we wandered up and down the hillsides wrapped in many layers against chilly wind, searching for signs of flowers. Here, too, Northern Idaho biscuitroot was mostly done blooming; pasqueflowers had mostly gone to seed, although a few were still blooming bravely.  We found prairie smoke, tiny western rock jasmine as close to blooming as we’ve ever seen it with yellow whitlow grass nearby, and one cheery fringed puccoon growing in a disturbed patch of dirt. 

Finally as we made our way back toward the car we rounded a hillside and spotted  small lance-shaped leaves.  Could these be yellow prairie violets, we wondered, but we didn’t wonder long. Tiny in the grass, yellow flower after yellow flower blossomed, some singly, some in bunches, and we found many more clumps of the distinctive leaves:  a mother lode of yellow prairie violets that made us laugh with delight.  After hours of windy wandering we had found them.

 As we left the SNA, the road we were on ended up taking us into South Dakota.  We had travelled border to border on our wildflower searches and found treasures at both sides of the state. To add to the riches, a quick stop at a WMA revealed the brilliant blue buds of the briefly blooming Carolina anemone. 

We had come on a search for two uncommon flowers and found so much more—a gift from the early prairie, whipped by wind and revealing her flowers.