Nature Notes

Leaves That Refresh and Delight

The leaves of prairie dock are huge:  12” or more in length and the foliage grows to 24” to 36” tall. At end of June, the flower stalks are nearing four feet high.

Visiting the Arboretum: All members and visitors need to make a reservation in advance of their visit to the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. We hope to see you soon!

By Greg Lecker

The paths are peaceful this morning and the heat is broken momentarily.  On this rare wet June 2021 morning, an umbrella is shielding me from a light drizzle and rain drops falling from the woodland canopy above. At the Dayton wildflower garden entry, large leaves of a spring wildflower also provide shelter from the rain.  It is Mayapple.


Yes, the yellow green oblong sphere hanging from a short curving stalk IS the color of a Granny Smith Apple. But the green fruit is poisonous as are all parts of the plant. This is the large fruit that follows the spring ephemeral’s white flower that hangs below a pair of large glossy leaves. The foliage is a palmate – meaning that it resembles a hand.  Curving “fingers” droop slightly from the main mass of the leaf. Instead of a wrist opposite the fingers, the leaves are supported by a stem that joins the leaf in the center. The foliage truly resembles an umbrella with deep gaps between the leaf lobes. The plant often grows in large colonies, as it does in this garden.

Farther down the path there is cup plant, a plant that collects rather than sheds rainfall.

Cup Plant

One often finds the plant in the prairies; but it also grows most often in moist or wet ditches, swales or wetland or stream borders – and woodland edges such as in this woodland garden. The scientific name of cup plant, perfoliatum, means “through the leaf,” referring to the stem that appears to pierce the leaves.   Cup Plant bears lance-shaped leaves opposite pairs that clasp around the stem forming a pocket for water collection.  These leaf cups catch and store rainwater, often for many days. If the leaves weren’t different enough, the stem itself is square, a trait common in the mint family but unusual among composites (daisy-like flowers).  These square stems prompted another common name of the plant, carpenter’s weed.   The leaves are coarse and rough. Providing food, water, and cover, cup plant is a great species that you can plant for birds.

In the Capen display garden, next to the prairie parking lot, are several masses of large triangular or spade shaped leaves. Like cup plant, this is plant with a coarse sandpaper like leaf. Prairie dock may look a little “weedy” to some eyes. Growing at the base of the plant, the clump of very large leaves (basal leaves) differentiates this plant from other prairie grasses and flowers.

Prairie Dock

The leaves of prairie dock are huge:  12” or more in length and the foliage grows to 24” to 36” tall. At end of June, the flower stalks are nearing four feet high. But by the time the flowers open in August, the flower stalks will have grown to nine feet, or more – occasionally topping out at thirteen feet – stretching out of a single portrait camera frame! At the top of these tall stalks, about six bright yellow sunflower-like heads open from smooth, round buds, and last for a month or longer.  Very long-lived, individual plants are known to flourish for decades.  It grows best in a slightly damp clay, loam or sandy soil, and in full sun.

From tall to small: on the opposite side of the spectrum of leaf shape and type is the relatively tiny purple prairie clover. In the plant, fine foliage diminishes moisture loss. Also, in contrast to the late summer palette of yellow flowers, this clover foliage is purple, though a white prairie clover can be found as well. Both plants have a tall thimble-shaped flower arrangement in which blooms open from the bottom to the top of the massed flower bud.

Purple Prairie Clover

Be sure to visit Reedy Gallery for a refreshing cool break after your tour of the Arboretum grounds.  Unexpected forms and narratives, cut paper rolls and wall hangings, plywood masquerading as tree trunk slices, and so much more!  As the exhibit suggests: “Nature: Wild and Wonderful”!

 Greg Lecker is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.

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