Ladies’-Tresses Perplexes

August 31, 2023

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

We’ve been on a search for Minnesota’s five different ladies’-tresses orchids that are findable (southern slender ladies’-tresses hasn’t been seen in Minnesota in 100 years, so we’re not really looking for it here).  We were briefly ecstatic to see a “new” one listed, sphinx ladies’-tresses, until a friend told us it was really just nodding ladies’-tresses under a new name.

We’ve found nodding (or, now, sphinx) ladies’-tresses in a wet part of Blaine Preserve Scientific and Natural Area (SNA).  We’ve seen both Case’s ladies’-tresses and also northern slender ladies’-tresses on top of a huge hill of dirt dug up decades ago to get to the iron ore below.  We spotted Great Plains ladies’-tresses in vigorous bloom on a goat prairie at King’s and Queen’s Bluffs SNA. And on a roadside in Pennington County in northern Minnesota a few weeks back we saw hooded ladies’-tresses  blooming.

When flower chasing brought us north again a few weeks later we stopped by that same roadside to check on the hooded ladies’-tresses and found almost no sign of them except for a couple of plants gone to seed.  What we did see blooming were a few similar-but-not quite-the-same spiraling white orchids, and we puzzled over them.  Shaggy hooded ladies’-tresses on their way to seed?  Nodding ladies’-tresses?  Great Plains ladies’-tresses?  

It’s easy to confuse nodding and Great Plains ladies’-tresses.  We know.  We’ve done it.  The flowers look similar and bloom at overlapping times in wetter places, although Great Plains ladies’-tresses also blooms in drier, gravelly habitats.  We’ve read that Great Plains ladies’-tresses smells like almonds, but to our non-botanical noses both flowers smell pretty much the same. To complicate things, distribution maps for the two don’t show either one in Pennington county. Maps, of course, can be mistaken, but so can we.

The next day in a ditch in Clay county we saw several of the same blooming ladies’-tresses and puzzled some more.  The only clue we could find was that the blooming plants didn’t appear to have any leaves, and since Great Plains ladies’-tresses loses its leaves before blooming, we tentatively identified them as Great Plains.  (Later we found that Great Plains ladies’-tresses is listed as being in Clay county while nodding ladies’-tresses is not, which helped strengthen our identification.) Are we right?  We don’t know.  We didn’t really stress over which ladies’-tresses we saw, but they were a mystery.  In the end, finding any ladies’-tresses  blooming gracefully in places wet or dry, whether or not we know its name,  is always a delight.  

Spotting Spotted Coralroot

July 23, 2023

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

We’ve been chasing spotted coralroot this summer with no luck, so it was high on our list of what we hoped to see when we headed north this past weekend.  We even had coordinates for places where it had been seen blooming recently.  Surely this time we would find it. 

We’ve found several populations  of the similar-looking Western spotted coralroot.  And while they are different flowers, they are also close look-alikes, and telling them apart can be challenging.  We’ve finally learned to look closely at the lower lip of the tiny 1/2 inch flowers–western spotted coralroot’s lip flares out at the bottom while spotted coralroot’s lip is more rectangular, a difference that takes close examination. 

Stop after stop, as we drove up the north shore, our luck for finding flowers  on our want-to-see list ran strong: American beach grass on Point Pine Forest, berries on female Canada buffaloberry bushes farther north, lesser purple fringed orchid in a ditch farther north still.  A hike up to Bear and Bean Lake led us past our first-ever pinesap, and in Taconite harbor we found early saxifrage leaves that we’ll return to earlier next year to try to catch in flower. 

All along the way, as we drove down roads and hiked down trails, as we followed GPS coordinates to impossible-for-us-to-bushwhack-through thickets,  we searched for spotted coralroot  without luck.  We found several bunches of western spotted coralroot and one pale yellow coralroot that looked so much like autumn coralroot we checked to see if autumn coralroot grew that far north.  It doesn’t.  Perhaps this was a yellow version of western spotted coralroot? We didn’t know, we only knew it wasn’t the spotted coralroot we were searching for. More days, more miles, more stops, more flowers.  But no spotted coralroot. 

On our last morning we had one final stop to try. All we needed, we told ourselves, was one spotted coralroot in bloom. Just one. 

And one is what we found, blooming alongside a trail at Savanna Portage State Park. Close examination revealed that yes, the flower lip was square.  Yes, it was spotted coralroot.  Cheers (and photographs) ensued. 

Chasing wildflowers, we live in hope. After three days and 740 miles seeing even more native wildflowers than we could have imagined, including the elusive spotted coralroot, we drove happily, hopefully home.  

To see more of what we are seeing now CLICK HERE!

Unexpected Wonder

July 8, 2023

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

We’ve been looking for specific flowers blooming in specific places when our two different schedules allow, which only works when the flowers cooperate.  This year when bloom times seem less predictable than usual, we’ve come to expect disappointments along with successes, so this past weekend in the absence of flowers to count we started counting disappointments.

Disappointment number 1:  The roadside where we’d seen showy milkweed blooming last summer shows no signs this year of showy, or of almost any other, milkweed.  Where did they go?  We don’t know.  We only know they aren’t where we’d seen them before. 

Disappointment number 2: The tessellated rattlesnake plantain leaves and last year’s flower stalks that we’d seen in Badoura Jack Pine Woodland Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) last fall are nowhere to be found, even though we scour the area around the GPS coordinates we’d recorded and brought with us.

Disappointment number 3:  We are almost at Iron Springs Bog SNA when the low tire pressure light comes on.  Do we change plans and drive forty miles to the nearest town large enough to have a tire store, or do we fill the  tire up with air and take a chance it will hold while we explore the SNA? We take a chance, inflate the tire, and head to Iron Springs Bog.  But we’re  barely down the rutted, slippery track into the SNA and beginning our search for an adder’s mouth orchid when the sky darkens, thunder threatens, and lightning crisscrosses the clouds.  

We run for the car and make it back up the treacherous track just as rain sluices down so hard we can barely see the road. We make it to town, where we look so forlorn that the manager at Tires Plus works us into his crowded schedule and patches our tire. We find our hotel, and settle in for the night. 

The next day is sunny and fresh-washed, and so are we.  Back at Iron Springs Bog, we search for an adder’s mouth along with other orchids we’ve seen there.  Hours pass without success, but the bog is rich and green after the rain, moss is soft underfoot, and the tall slender bog orchids platanthera aquilonis* and platanthera huronensis* are plentiful. We find one showy lady’s-slipper with a single flower and the leaves of several more plants, their blossoms nipped off by whatever eats these elegant flowers. Just as we are  about to drive on we find one more orchid with a few small flowers that we identify as a blunt-leaved orchid. Not seeing any sign of the orchids we came to find might count as disappointment number 4.  But on such a splendid morning, do we care?  We do not.  

Our next stop takes us to Larix Wildlife Management Area (WMA) where we’ve heard we might see some rare flowers. We park at the corner, begin to bushwhack in through the dense undergrowth and trees, and quickly realize how easily we could get very, very lost. Luckily we’ve brought plastic marking tape so we can boldly go where no one seems to have gone in a very long time, marking our way with orange strips tied to trees.  When we finally admit that we are only getting into more unpassable bushwhacking we backtrack, taking our orange ties with us. But we agree that not getting lost counterbalances the disappointment of not really getting anywhere at all. 

Across the road lies Gully Fen SNA, looking almost as densely impenetrable as the WMA we’ve just left, but we decide to at least drive around the edges.  About halfway around we come to a gate and a sign that says, “Stay on the Trail.” 

Trail?  We park and hike easily and gleefully into the SNA where we spy wood lilies, blue flag, shrubby cinquefoil, and pink shinleaf.  We’ve barely scratched the surface of Gully Fen’s 1600 acres before it’s time to start the long drive home, but we promise to come back with much more time to explore this amazing place. 

One last turn down a road along the edge of the SNA takes us past a roadside ditch with a small stretch abloom with  wood lilies, Joe Pye weed, swamp milkweed, goldenrod, yarrow, Kalm’s lobelia, and, amazingly, many platanthera aquilonis orchids.  We’ve looked hard in many places, but this gift of a ditch feels like the richest place we’ve seen all weekend. 

Flowers may not bloom when and where we expect them to, disappointments may occur,  but always we see unlooked-for wonders that make our hearts happy and grateful. 

What more could a flowerchaser want? 

*Note:  Usually we use common names for flowers, but the similar orchids platanthera aquilonis and platanthera huronensis share so many variations of the same common names (tall, northern, bog, green) that we decided we needed to learn their scientific names to keep them straight.

See more of what we are seeing now HERE!

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