For the Best Fall Colors, Look at Your Feet
By Jessica Nelson, Seasonal Park Ranger, Mississippi National River and Recreation Area
Fall is a wonderful time to watch the changing colors that are characteristic of the season. We watch the aspens, birches, and cottonwoods turn to bright shades of yellow and are always impressed by the dark oranges and reds of the sumac and maples. Many of us will take time this fall to drive up north to chase the fall colors. Is it peak yet?! But what we often overlook is the swirling palette of vibrant colors that the prairie provides us during this season. This autumn, explore your local national park or any public land and take a moment to engage with the beauty surrounding your feet.
The Prairie Provides Unusual Fall Colors:
The prairie provides unique colors that are not often associated with the changing leaves of fall. Dark purple, maroons, mauves, and navy blues abound as autumn wildflowers bloom and prairie grasses go to seed.
Look for Big Bluestem grass, easily identifiable by its dark blue stem and purple spikes also known as its “turkey feet”. It can easily grow up to seven feet tall! You can find Big Bluestem in just about any Minnesota prairie. Check out Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary or Mississippi West Regional Park to see especially impressive fields of it!
Another pop of bright blue can be found within the prairie when Bottle Gentian begins to bloom. This late blooming fall flower is also easy to identify by its large, tubular flowers, which are easily mistaken to be buds. Aptly named, the flowers of Bottle Gentian never truly open unless forced open by a persistent pollinator. Bumblebees are one of the only pollinators strong enough to pry open these flowers!
Another color group that is not associated with the fall are the pastel shades of pink and purple, so often reserved for the springtime. These colors are very present in the prairie in the fall if you take a moment to look for them.
One of the most common sources of this color would be the many varieties of purple and sky blue Asters that bloom late into the fall. They often bloom in large patches and the flower shape is reminiscent of a common daisy.
An unusual plant with an unusual name with bright pink flowers is Joe-pye Weed. You can find this plant near wetlands and it explodes into bloom in the fall. This plant can reach heights up to eight feet tall and with its huge flower clusters, it is a favorite of just about every type of pollinator. To find Asters and Joe-pye Weed, take a trip to Lilydale Regional Park or Spring Lake Park Reserve. Be on the lookout for other purples and pink flowers hidden in the prairie as your explore including rough blazing star, common milkweed, and smartweed.
A Whole Spectrum of Typical Fall Colors:
Purples, blues, and pinks are indeed unique to the prairie in the fall but the prairie also boasts an astonishing array of “typical” fall colors including every shade of yellow, gold, ochre, flax, maize, canary, wheat, and amber imaginable.
As Indian grass goes to seed, it turns a luminous dark gold that is richer in color than a lions mane. Fields of Indian grass moving in the wind is one of the most spectacular shows the prairie puts on in the fall. As you watch the grass look also for amber and tan stands of switchgrass, side oats gramma, and Canada wild rye.
It would also be nearly impossible to miss the pure yellow of goldenrod in bloom. Goldenrod is a sure sign that school is about to start and the depths of fall are just around the corner. There are 18 varieties found in Minnesota but you are most likely to encounter Stiff Goldenrod, Showy Goldenrod, and Canada Goldenrod on a hike. This flower holds its color long past many others often still blooming into October.
Check out Indian Mounds Regional Park or Mill Ruins Park to get your fill of this golden flower this fall. Keep an eye open for additional yellow flowers during your hike including black-eyed susan, curlycup gumweed, and a variety of sunflowers.
The prairie is washed completely in shades of yellow through September and October but pops of orange and red can be found as well. One of the most noticeable pops of orange belongs to Butterfly-weed, which is a type of milkweed utilized by monarch butterflies to lay their eggs and a food source for monarch caterpillars.
This flower is not only easily recognizable by its bright orange color but by its seed pods as well. Clusters of narrow, spindle-shaped seed pods stretch skyward from this plant and eventually burst open releasing seeds attached to wispy parachutes of fluff to carry them away into the wind.
Red is one of the hardest but most rewarding fall colors to find amongst the prairie. Cardinal flowers are easy to identify as they are the only thing that are such a deep red color. Their flowers have a very characteristic shape that are reminiscent of a dancing ballerina. Minnesota is on the very western edge of this flowers range so you are truly fortunate to find one of these flowers as your explore.
Take your explorations to the south and check out the Great River Road Visitor and Learning Center for excellent views of the Mississippi River and to have the best chance at spotting this gem amongst the restored prairie!
Wherever you may explore this fall, remember to keep a keen eye on all the variety of colors that surround you, whether it be above your head or at your feet. If you need help identifying the wonderful plants around you, bring a field guide along or utilize an ID app on your smartphone such as Seek by iNaturalist or Google Lens. Happy exploring!
Cover photo by The Nature Conservancy. All other photos from minnesotawildflowers.info. Photo credit listed on each photo.