view of lost valley prairie's colors

Documenting the Plant Diversity of Minnesota at Lost Valley Prairie

Updating the Bell's Collection

Published01/06/2021 , by Timothy Whitfeld

Hidden among the roughly 950,000 pressed plant specimens housed in the Bell Museum Herbarium is a collection of scarlet gaura from the high prairies near Pipestone Quarry made by Charles Geyer on May 1, 1839. Geyer was the botanist on Joseph Nicollet’s expedition sent to explore the region of the Louisiana Purchase between the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. If you look hard enough, you might also find the specimen of prairie alumroot from June 24, 1832, collected near present-day Floodwood, along the St. Louis River. Between the 1830s and 2020, tens of thousands of specimens have been added to the herbarium collection, from Minnesota and beyond. Hundreds more specimens come in every year, collected by faculty and students at the University, biologists working for various state and federal agencies, private consultants, and botanists from around the world.

Over the summer of 2020, I was able to contribute to this ongoing effort of documenting the world’s plant diversity. My botanical attention was focused close to home, on the Lost Valley Prairie Scientific and Natural Area, a few miles north of Hastings. This protected area of rolling hills includes dry prairie ridges that have never been cultivated, small limestone rock outcrops, and patches of woodland. My goal is to make a complete botanical inventory of the site, with specimens for the Bell Museum Herbarium, that document 21st century plant diversity in this corner of the state. The specimens will form a botanical baseline for ongoing monitoring efforts that track environmental change in Minnesota’s natural areas.

Between June and September 2020, I collected specimens of around 230 plant species. These included grasses, wildflowers, ferns, trees, and shrubs. In the early summer, I saw yellow-star grass, prairie violet, and hairbell. By July, purple prairie clover, prairie blazing star, and wild bergamot were in full flower and in September, sky-blue aster, various goldenrods, and gentians were in full display, with tall grasses such as big bluestem and Indian grass waving in the breeze. There’s always something to see in a prairie and a visit at any time during the spring, summer, or fall is time well spent. During the winter months, when outdoor botanical adventures are temporarily curtailed, it’s possible to explore the Bell Museum collections by searching the Minnesota Biodiversity Atlas. This freely available online database is a portal into the Bell Museum collections that makes our specimens available at any time, from the comfort of your home. Search for collections from all counties of Minnesota and many countries around the world.

There are still more plants to be found at Lost Valley prairie so I hope to return during the 2021 field season to track down these last remaining species. Some of them are hiding shyly under the thatch of prairie vegetation and others are in full view, just awaiting discovery in a hidden corner of the Lost Valley.

Timothy J. S. Whitfeld, Collections Manager
Bell Museum Herbarium (MIN)
University of Minnesota

A Glimpse of the Collected Lost Valley Prairie Plant Specimen

Scroll through the images below for a glimpse of the plant specimens collected by Tim Whitfeld, between June and September 2020 at Lost Valley Prairie Scientific and Natural Area.