The cool, overcast morning promised rain, but spring was in full swing at last, so we packed our boots and rain gear and drove down to southern Minnesota to see what was blooming. We’d already seen many of this year’s spring flowers and ephemerals, but we knew, too, that some rare and lovely flowers grew along wooded ravines and creek sides in the driftless area of the state where the last glaciers never reached.
First stop, Olmstead county along the Root River. A stream of brightly blooming marsh marigolds led us through a forest rich in flowers to where groundwater percolates down through the bluffs and flows out into a seepage. We’d been here on a previous, naturalist-led trip and been enchanted by the green, moist woods and the plants that populated this tiny wetland. Now the tiny false mermaid plants we’d seen before were tiny no more, and in leaf axils, where leaf and stem meet, minute flowers bloomed.
Leaves of jewelweed, leafcup, and trout lily grew scattered among the rocks along with shiny bunches of sharp-lobed hepatica’s new leaves. Nearby many glorious trilliums grew, and we discussed: drooping or nodding? Nodding, we decided, but elegantly beautiful whichever they were.
Leaves that we’d puzzled over previously on our last visit–Dutchman’s breeches or squirrel corn, two plants so similar we can’t tell them apart until they bloom–now revealed their true identities. Strings of breeches hung in lines on arching stalks while squirrel corn’s heart-shaped flowers bloomed on more upright stalks. Mayapples budded, walking fern walked itself down the side of a mossy boulder, and the pleated striped leaves of puttyroot orchid made us promise a return trip to see them in bloom.
Frogs chirred, birds sang, woodpeckers hammered, and the woods felt alive with spring.
But we weren’t done yet. Not too far away in Winona County more wooded ravines held their own promises. A creekside path led us past the leaves of done-blooming bloodroot, cut-leaf toothwort, and trout lilies, while spring beauty, wood phlox, false rue anemone, wood anemone, jack in the pulpit, and bellwort still boomed. Up on a hillside we found several healthy populations of twinleaf, flowers gone but still easy to recognize by the distinctive leaves. Also on the hillside –surprise!– our first orchid of the season, showy orchis, budding hopefully.
The forecast rain arrived, but only a gentle sprinkle. Light through the new-leafed trees along the sides of the ravine shone green, and our hearts, too, were green with springtime. And with hope.
Two weeks ago we saw the first tiny, furry brown bud of a single pasqueflower, one of our earliest prairie flowers, peeking out from its nest of last year’s dried leaves. Surely that bud would be further along now, we reasoned, even though there has been plenty of cold, snowy weather in the ensuing weeks. Maybe even almost blooming?
Hungry for the sight of delicate pale purple petals opening to follow the sun, we set out on a mostly grey day for Grey Cloud Dunes Scientific and Natural Area (SNA), one of the sandy, gravelly habitats where pasqueflowers grow. We found the same bud we’d seen before, still nestled deep in last year’s leaves, although now a second bud was poking up beside it. Two buds, no flowers. Progress.
Undaunted, we decided to drive farther south in the hope of pasqueflower blossoms. Down by River Terrace Prairie SNA, a sand and gravel prairie near Cannon Falls, we climbed the hillside where brush and trees have been cleared away since our last visit. Here, too, we found soft, feathery brown buds emerging, so many we had to watch where we put our feet even on the well-worn path.
Call it determination, call it delusion–convinced that spring and blooming pasqueflower were just a few miles farther south we drove on to Kellogg-Weaver Dunes SNA where two years ago we’d been surprised by a roadside ditch dotted with pasqueflower in bloom. Surely here, two hours south of where we started, spring would be creeping north.
Once again we found a few buds, but the prairie still lay covered in last year’s brown leaves, yellow grasses, and seed heads. Brown prairie, grey sky.
And then color surprised us.
On the stumps of trees cut down to prevent their encroachment on the prairie, we found grey-green lichen with tiny red fruiting bodies at the tips of stalks. Stump after stump, we marveled at the vivid red, guessing they might be British soldier lichen. A quick check on our cell phones proved our guess was right. (We’ve been wanting to learn more about lichens, and this brings our total of positive identification to two, along with elegant sunburst lichen which we love both for its rich gold color and also for its name.)
A quick detour to a wooded rustic road as we headed toward home showed us the emerging leaves of eastern false rue anemone, one of our earliest woodland flowers, and at another brief stop we found the tiniest shoots of snow trillium we’ve ever seen. Even though we didn’t find pasqueflowers (or anything else) in bloom, we found woods and prairie waking up. For now we are happy with the delight of lichen and the sure promise that soon, spring will arrive.
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!