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!

More to Explore

March 24, 2022

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

When we were asked to do an article for Explore Minnesota about where to see wildflowers around the state, we were excited to share some of our favorite places and flowers. As we worked on the article, we realized we have so many favorites that we wanted to share a few more places and flower faces with fellow and future wildflower searchers. 


Nerstrand Big Woods State Park near Northfield, Minnesota, is a must-visit for us each spring.  Dwarf trout lilies, known in only three counties in Minnesota and nowhere else in the world, grow in the park. When the dwarf trout lilies bloom, a park naturalist is usually available to point out these rare, tiny flowers. Look, too, for Dutchman’s breeches, cutleaf toothwort, white trout lily, Canadian wild ginger, Virginia spring beauty—a wealth of early woodland wildflowers, and a waterfall along the trail to boot.

Flowers don’t stop at borders, so we don’t always either.  Once the prairie begins to bloom we slip across the border to visit Hayden Prairie near Lime Springs, Iowa.  As the season unfolds we’re dazzled by displays of prairie shooting star (listed as endangered in Minnesota where it is found in only one known remaining location), plains wild indigo, prairie coreopsis, wood lily, swamp milkweed, and prairie milkweed. 

As spring blossoms, we cross another border where at Perrot State Park near Trempealeau, Wisconsin, a spectacular explosion of jeweled shooting star covers the hillside, visible from the road as well as from trails.


To spot one of the season’s very first wildflowers, look along the boardwalk below Minnehaha Falls in Minneapolis where skunk cabbage can generate enough heat to melt its way up out of the snow and delight us with the promise that the wildflower season is beginning.

Not far from Minneapolis, Wood-Rill Scientific and Natural Area is another woodsful of springtime flowers.  Look for bloodroot, Jack-in-the-pulpit, large-flowered bellwort, sessile-leaf bellwort, nodding trillium, red columbine, and rue-anemone under the lacy new leaves of tall trees.

Murphy-Hanrehan Park Reserve in Savage, Minnesota, is a good place to see hillsides of lovely  blue lupines, the ones that are native to Minnesota.  (The larger lupines along the north shore, although beautiful, are, sadly, not native to the state.)

For more showy orchis than we’ve ever seen, go to French Regional Park in Plymouth, Minnesota. In mid-May a hillside along the trail is covered with one of our state’s earliest orchids.

Near Saint Cloud, Minnesota, visit Quarry Park and Nature Preserve to see scarlet paintbrush, prairie blue-eyed grass, and other blooms in the prairie section of the park.  Trails among the massive rocks and old quarry pits (two quarries are designated for swimming) offer a chance to see spring woodland wildflowers such as Canada mayflower and wild geranium. On sunny rock outcrops look, too, for brittle prickly pear, one of our state’s three native cacti. If you are very lucky, as we were on one visit, you might even see great horned owlets on a rocky cliff, waiting for their momma to bring them a meal.


Any of the state parks along the north shore of Lake Superior are splendid places to see woodland wildflowers, including rose twisted-stalk, bunchberry, and wild sarsaparilla.

At Artist’s Point by Grand Marais, Minnesota, and almost anywhere along Lake Superior’s rocky shore, look for hardy little plants such as harebell, shrubby cinquefoil, and upland white goldenrod. The Grand Marais breakwater is also a good place to search for bird’s-eye primrose and common butterwort, arctic relicts that are rare in Minnesota, although common much farther north. (Based on personal experience, we recommend waiting at least until the ice is off the breakwater.)


We love bogs no matter where we find them, and Savanna Portage State Park near McGregor, Minnesota, has a great bog boardwalk leading to a small lake.  From the boardwalk look for buckbean, bog laurel, bog rosemary, three-leaved false Solomon’s seal, Labrador tea, and naked miterwort along with purple pitcher plant and other bog dwellers.  You might even spy some of the orchids that love peat bogs.

At Seven Sisters Prairie, a Nature Conservancy site near Alexandria, Minnesota, a path up the gravel prairie climbs almost 200 feet, offering a 360 degree view of prairie, hills, sky, and Lake Christina, an important stopping place for migrating waterfowl. As you climb, you’ll pass purple prairie clover, Canada milkvetch, whorled milkweed, leadplant, bergamot, and a richness of other prairie flowers.  (If you find yourself, as we did, suddenly losing the trail in a patch of sumac, turn back and retrace your steps or you will find yourself bushwhacking your way back down the hill through head-high sumac bushes. We know.  We should have turned back. We didn’t.)


Among all the trails in Itasca State Park, located near Park Rapids, Minnesota, be sure to check out the Schoolcraft Trail which begins near the headwaters of the Mississippi. Here you might see wood anemone, bluebead lily, starflower, large yellow lady’s-slipper, and even the pale white stems of ghost pipe.

Frenchman’s Bluff Scientific and Natural Area near Twin Valley in northwestern Minnesota is a dry hill prairie, splendid in the fall (which is the only time we’ve visited so far, but it’s on our list to see earlier in the summer this year).  Here you’ll find pasqueflowers in the spring, followed by blanketflower, prairie onion, rough blazing star, dotted blazing star, downy gentian, bottle gentian, and goldenrod.

From the first signs of skunk cabbage to the last goldenrods, asters, and drifting milkweed seeds, Minnesotans (and other folks) can travel the state or search close to home for our native wildflower treasures.  We wish you happy searching!

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