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!

Budding Springtime

April 2, 2022

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

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. 


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