The Prairie in November

This time of year can be bleak: the colors of October have faded, the flowers have been frosted, and our color palette seems to descend into various shades of brown. For many, this is a time to turn inward, haul out the big soup pot, and dial up the thermostat. For those with a keen eye and a sense of subtlety, however, late fall provides both color and interest, and nowhere more than on the prairie.

My favorite part of a fall prairie has to be the bluestem grasses. There are two “bluestems” in Minnesota: big bluestem, which grows taller than a person and waves three-pronged seedheads in the air, and little bluestem. Little bluestem carries its seeds on tiny white tufts along the stem, and in the fall the whole stalk of the grass turns a reddish purple that positively glows when the sun is low in the morning or evening. At North Mississippi, the bluestem in our south prairie is a stunning sight in the fall.

Flowering plants like asters, milkweed and coneflowers can be just as interesting to look at in the fall as they are in the summer. Once the fluffy seeds of asters have been carried away by the wind, you can still see a star-shaped “flower” at the top of the plant—the area that held the seeds is the same shape as the flowers themselves! Coneflower seedheads, in contrast, look like tiny, prickly hedgehogs on long stems, while milkweeds and butterfly weed plants hold on to their long pointy seedpods for months after their seeds are gone. Even though the color of the summer is gone, it is replaced with a broad display of equally beautiful shapes and textures.

One feature of the late fall prairie that you might notice if you look closely are small, onion-shaped swellings on some plant stems. These swellings, called “galls,” are the result of an interesting interaction between the plant goldenrod and an insect, the goldenrod gall fly. Early in the summer, when goldenrod plants are just beginning to grow, a mother gall fly lays her egg on the stem of the plant. When the egg hatches, a tiny larva chews its way into the stem where it settles in for the summer. The larva’s saliva, however, causes the plant stem to grow disproportionately at that spot, creating the gall that provides both food and shelter for the fly. The larva will spend the entire winter inside this gall, and emerge in the spring as a small fly with mottled wings. In November this story is just beginning, and it boggles the mind to see a goldenrod gall and know that a tiny life will be spending the long, cold winter inside.

There are two very different prairies within North Mississippi Regional Park: to the north of the interpretive center the prairie low in the valley grows a wide variety of wildflowers and grasses, while the prairie to the south of the building is primarily a grass prairie. Each has its own special beauty, and each can be a source of hidden discovery in the colder months.

Join us for the following nature programs. Reservations required; call 763-559-6700. Prairie Tea Tasting, Saturday, Nov. 7, 1-3 p.m.., ages 12+, $5/person. River Walk, Saturday, Nov. 7, 9-10 a.m., all ages, free, no registration required. Big River, Small Fry: Nature for Curious Kids, Thursday, Nov. 12, 9 a.m.-noon, ages birth-5 with an adult, $5/person, ages 1 and under free. Destination Minnesota: Travelling North on the Mississippi. Friday, Nov. 13, 10:30 a.m.-noon, ages 16+, $5/person. The Ancient Art of String, Saturday, Nov. 14, 10 a.m.-noon, ages 8+, $5/person. River Puppets and the Turkey’s Tail (Tale), Friday, Nov. 20, 10-11 a.m., ages 2-6 with an adult, $4/person. Natural Ornaments and Gifts, Saturday, Nov. 21, 10 a.m.-noon, ages 8+, $5/person. Nature Walks Saturday, Nov. 28, 10-11:30 a.m., 1-2:30 p.m. and 3-4:30 p.m., all ages, free, no registration required.

Free Family Fundays: Come by on Sundays anytime between 1-3 p.m. for a free family program: Skulls on Nov. 1, Old-fashioned Games on Nov. 8, Furbearing Animals on Nov. 15, River History Mystery on Nov. 22, and Talking Turkey on Nov. 29. Reservations not required. Call us at 763-694-7693 for info or visit