Rare wildflowers bloom on Minnesota's prairie

  • Article by: KATY READ
  • Updated: August 28, 2014 - 10:16 AM
hide

One of Minnesota’s most elusive and federally protected wildflowers is the Western Prairie Fringed Orchid, found here blooming on virgin prairie soil north of Luverne.

Photo: Photos by Brian Peterson • brian.peterson@startribune.com,

CameraStar Tribune photo galleries

Cameraview larger

[T]he prairie plants yearly repeat their story, in technicolor, from the first pale blooms of pasque in April to the wine-red plumes of bluestem in the fall. All but the blind may read, and gather from the reading new lessons in the meaning of America.

Aldo Leopold author, wildlife biologist and conservationist

 

 

They’re not towering, like mountains, or unfathomably deep, like oceans. They’re flat or gently rolling treeless grasslands — the kind of landscape that coastal types like to dismiss as “flyoverland.”

But prairies have their own subtle grandeur.

“To really appreciate a prairie, it’s best to go walk in it and sit down, so that you’re at eye level with the wildflowers,” said Margaret Kuchenreuther, an associate professor of biology and coordinator of the environmental studies program at the University of Minnesota, Morris. “I love how the grass looks like waves in an ocean on a day when it’s windy. It’s quiet, but with the music of the wind, the meadowlark, the clay-colored sparrow, maybe a few katydids, it’s magical.”

Three factors shaped the prairies, Kuchenreuther said: drought, fire and grazing bison. Long droughts invited tough, narrow-leaved plants whose roots extend far underground. Wildfires and bison kept trees away.

To a prairie, trees are invasive species.

So are corn and soybeans, from the prairie’s perspective. But from a farmer’s perspective, deep, rich prairie soil is ideal for crops. “We owe our agricultural lifestyle to the prairie,” Kuchenreuther said.

Early European settlers arrived to 18 million acres of prairie in Minnesota, the grass taller in some places than a man on horseback. Now almost 99 percent of that prairie is gone.

Prairies enrich soil, filter water, grow potentially medicinal plants. Prairie wildlife includes important pollinators like bumblebees and butterflies.

“In North America, grassland birds have shown the steepest decline of any group of birds in our nation,” Kuchenreuther said. “When was the last time you heard a bobolink? Those require large expanses of contiguous prairie.”

Can prairie, once plowed or paved, grow back? Not easily. Some farm fields have been set aside for prairie restoration. But trees and other non-native vegetation have closed in. As for those three factors, the dry climate might remain and wildfires could rage again, but “bison? Not so much,” Kuchenreuther said.

A lot of what’s left of the prairie is fragmented, pieces scattered in ditches and alongside railroad tracks.

“And the way that humans typically manage the landscape! Even the prairie in their ditches they’ve got to mow, before the meadowlarks have finished nesting,” Kuchenreuther said. “Drives me crazy.”

Or as Aldo Leopold wrote in 1948, “Mechanized man, oblivious of floras, is proud of his progress in cleaning up the landscape on which, willy-nilly, he must live out his days. It might be wise to prohibit at once all teaching of real botany and real history, lest some future citizen suffer qualms about the floristic price of his good life.”

  • related content

  • Like a natural floral fireworks display, the Golden Alexander sprouts stems to support small yellow flowers just days from blooming.

  • Spiderwort flowers bloom south of Sandborn, Minn.

  • Smokey fires to the west created spectacular sunsets through the grasses on the prairie at Blue Mound State Park.

  • The Large-flowered Beard-tongue is an early bloomer along the rolling grasslands of Glacial Lakes State Park.

  • Prairie Rose with visitor.

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions

Click here to send us your hunting or fishing photos – and to see what others are showing off from around the region.

ADVERTISEMENT

Kansas City - J. Guthrie 5:10 PM
Cleveland - T. Bauer
Toronto - D. Hutchison 5:10 PM
Boston - C. Buchholz
Chicago WSox 0 Postponed
Baltimore 0
Tampa Bay - J. Odorizzi 6:05 PM
NY Yankees - C. Whitley
Washington - A. Cole 6:10 PM
Atlanta - J. Teheran
NY Mets - R. Montero 6:10 PM
Miami - D. Phelps
Milwaukee - K. Lohse 6:10 PM
Cincinnati - J. Cueto
Pittsburgh - J. Locke 7:05 PM
Chicago Cubs - T. Wood
Seattle - J. Happ 7:05 PM
Texas - R. Detwiler
Detroit - A. Sanchez 7:10 PM
Minnesota - M. Pelfrey
Philadelphia - S. Gonzalez 7:15 PM
St. Louis - M. Wacha
Colorado - K. Kendrick 8:40 PM
Arizona - A. Bradley
LA Angels - J. Weaver 9:05 PM
Oakland - S. Gray
Houston - R. Hernandez 9:10 PM
San Diego - T. Ross
San Francisco - M. Bumgarner 9:10 PM
Los Angeles - C. Kershaw
Dallas 7:00 PM
Houston
San Antonio 9:30 PM
LA Clippers
Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

question of the day

Poll: Should the lake where the albino muskie was caught remain a mystery?

Weekly Question

ADVERTISEMENT

 
Close