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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Arb Notes: A Spring Walk Through the Arboretum

<lden hills of McKnight prairie emerging through the mist and driving rain were a welcome sight as we drove along the Cannon River on a cold and wet Earth Day. Along with the other Carleton student naturalists and Arb Director Nancy Braker, I set out into the gale to get a glimpse of what was supposed to be a spring scene at this thirty three acre slice of remnant prairie just eight miles from the Carleton campus. And in spite of the unseasonable weather, as we tromped through the wet grass we were confronted with unmistakable signs of spring.

We’d ventured out specifically to see the early-blooming delicate blue pasque flowers, so-called because they emerge around Easter. The southwest slope of McKnight’s west hill was dotted with thousands of plants all in bloom, hidden among the taller prairie grasses. Each single plant bore at least one and up to ten or more flowers, surrounded by anemone-like leaves. The tiny hairs covering the pasque flower help the plants keep in the heat from the ground and sun, protecting their tissue from frost damage, especially in early spring storms like this one.

After examining the flowers, we made our way east to a sandy patch where Nancy pointed out last year’s “earth stars,” little fungi that resemble tiny puff balls elevated off the ground by unfurled star-like petals. Initially, the earth stars’ petals are wrapped tightly around the fungal spore body. When the petals begin to open, drops of rain landing on the spore body release spores into the air.  The desiccated shells of last years’ fruiting bodies littered the sand like strange spiders.

The sandy patch also yielded a botanical surprise incongruous with the weather: prickly pear cactuses. Though prickly pears probably didn’t grow at McKnight originally, they are native to the upper Midwest and can be found on sandy benches above the Minnesota and Wisconsin rivers. A friend of McKnight founder Paul Jensen sent these prickly pears from Baraboo, Wisconsin and they have thrived in the sandy soil at McKnight ever since. 

As we continued east along the length of the prairie, beneath last year’s grasses we found more pasque flowers and a few other spring flowers: violets, which will carpet the west slope of the east hill in a few weeks, and the first blossoms of prairie smoke. And as we made our way back along a muddy and wet road, it was with the reassurance that, in spite of all signs to the contrary, spring is just around the corner!

Callie Millington for the Cole Student Naturalists

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