Wildflower Series #3: A day full of prairie

Butterfly weed, like other milkweeds, is a host plant for monarch butterfly
larvae, who eat the leaves. Unlike other milkweeds, this one has clear sap
and flowers that range from pale yellow-orange to vivid orange to deep red.


We’ve been to the big woods to see the springtime flowers, we’ve been up north for a second spring (and even a bit of a third spring this past weekend near Duluth). Now we’ve a hankering for the prairie flowers, so Sunday we headed out to McKnight Prairie, the closest undisturbed prairie we know of, located seven miles from Northfield in the midst of a tree farm and corn fields.

As soon as we stepped onto the path that leads up the nearer of the two hills that make up McKnight Prairie, I was jotting names in my notebook while Kelly snapped pictures: tall meadow rue, Canada milkvetch, golden Alexanders, Canada anemone, clammy ground cherry, and northern bedstraw were all blooming, and scattered spires of prairie alumroot shot up above the grasses and flowers. Prairie roses dotted the green with their bright pink petals, and along the hilltop we found the leaves of many pasque flowers, which must have made for a glorious early spring sight. Usually Kelly puts her camera back in her camera bag between pictures, but on this visit she just kept shooting flower after flower after flower.

Prairie rose plants are the shortest of Minnesota’s four native roses,
growing up to three feet tall, with bristly stems and leaves
made up of several jagged-edged leaflets.

No matter what kind of puccoon we see
(pictured here is hairy puccoon), they
light up the early prairie.

Pussytoes, puccoon, blue-eyed grass, butterfly-weed already turning orange—everywhere we looked the prairie was awake with flowers. On the second hillside the prickly pear cactuses were budding, larkspur bloomed, harebells danced and prairie smoke gone to seed rippled in the endless wind while several white camas bloomed brightly. Down the sweep of the hillside we recognized spiderwort and prairie sage. The only worrying sight was the large-flowered beardtongue, which seemed blighted by spots on the leaves with only a few plants flowering, something we want to find out more about.

We took our time following the path back along the hills, soaking up the prairie and identifying one more new-to-us flower: green milkweed. Back at the car I pulled ticks off my socks (white socks so the ticks show up), and we drove home on a perfect prairie day, filled up with wind and flowers and sky.

Like many other spring flowers, prairie smoke’s stalks and bracts
are very hairy. Bees that pollinate prairie smoke do so by buzz
pollination—vibrating their bodies to shake the pollen out of the flower.


Phyllis Root and Kelly Povo spent ten years collaborating on Searching for Minnesota’s Native Wildflowers: A Guide for Beginners, Botanists, and Everyone in Between. Check back on this blog as they document their wildflower-seeking adventures this summer.

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