Saving our state flower

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— Just over two decades ago, Graden West found more than a good fishing spot on Long Lake near New London.

His footpath to the water held a patch of Showy Lady's Slipper, the state flower. West recognized what others who had trampled carelessly over the native plants had not. He told his spouse, Becky, about the find.

She is passionate about prairie fauna and tends her own prairie garden at their home near Nest Lake. Excited about the find, she called her friend Michelle Day. She put the supper she was cooking on hold just for the chance to drive out with her friend to see the flowers.

The invitation to see the flowers came with one caveat: Tell no one of their location. "It's like a patch of morel mushrooms," West explained. "You never tell the location."

Neither of the women would ever imagine that in a few years time, they'd more than let the secret out. Day wrote letters to everyone from the Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners on up to then-Gov. Mark Dayton to tell about the find and especially why it was the location that mattered so much.

Plans for expanding the segment of Minnesota Highway 23 by Long Lake to four lanes called for tearing up the site. At one point, the designs showed the site as part of a circle to be used by trucks hauling gravel for the road construction.

"That's what got my goat," said Day. She and West confessed that they became a "thorn in the side" to everyone when it came to their mission to save the Showy Lady's Slippers. They attended open house meetings hosted by MnDOT. Day carried a packet of photos of the blooming flowers at the site along with her to show anyone involved with making decisions on the highway project just what was at stake.

"They're a gift from God," said Day of the native flowers.

Today, the flowers are survivors, thanks to the two women and Michelle's late husband, Duane. Until his death in 2015, he was as avid as Michelle and Becky in the quest to save the flowers.

At one point, Duane, as a former architect, approached the engineers for the Highway 23 project with his own designs for how the expanded road could be routed to avoid this once-secret patch.

The location is not being saved, but the Minnesota Department of Transportation worked with Day and West to transplant the Showy Lady's Slippers to new host sites.

Here's the good news: Many of the transplanted flowers are surviving at their new sites and at least in one case, doing blooming well.

That's at the Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center, where roughly one-third of the 95 Showy Lady's Slippers saved from the highway project were transplanted last September. In most cases, the roots of transplanted Showy Lady's Slippers go dormant for the first year after being transplanted, and usually do not bloom.

At one of the two Prairie Woods sites holding the new flowers, they are in full bloom. Several of the plants are doing pretty well, said Kory Klebe of Prairie Woods. He was on hand to help with the transplanting last fall.

Nate Johnson with the Minnesota Department of Transportation is responsible for roadside vegetation management and construction impacts on them. He credits Day and West with saving the plants by bringing their existence to the department's attention. Due to their location, it's entirely possible that the site would have been flattened by bulldozers without anyone being aware of their presence.

Johnson said that when rare or endangered species are impacted, and it is possible to safely transport them, MnDOT will do so as much as possible.

Day and West were joined at their once-secret location last September by Johnson and others from Prairie Woods ELC, Sibley State Park and the Nature Conservancy. They dug up the plants and divided them up for transplanting.

Johnson visited the plants at Sibley State Park on Wednesday to see how they are faring. Some still survive, but a portion of the transplanted plants could not be seen. He suspects that deer may have browsed on them.

He is waiting for word from the Nature Conservancy on how their transplanted plants are doing on prairie lands they manage.

The two women said they are happy to know that the plants are survivors, although they wish the original site itself could have been protected.

West admits to mixed feelings about the highway project itself. She hopes the improved road delivers on the promise for improved safety. Her grandson, Nathaniel Shumaker, 11, of New London, died April 25, 2018 in an accident on the highway.

The political agreement that made funding possible for this project was made on Green Lake when fishing guide Kelly Morrel made an emotional appeal for a safer Highway 23 just days after attending Shumaker's funeral. Morrel's boat mates were Gov. Dayton and Representative Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, and Republican leaders in the legislature, Senator Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, and Representative Kurt Daudt, R-Crown.

The women have been back to the site recently before work starts on it. They found another 13 Showy Lady's Slippers growing around the perimeters of the excavated plants. While the Showy Lady's Slippers are being saved, this site and others along the new highway path includes a wide variety of native, flowering prairie plants.

Their hope now is that saving the Showy Lady's Slippers will help promote more awareness and appreciation by all of us for what we are losing, and hopefully, to save what remains. We have a lot of natural gifts like these that we do not always recognize, explained Day.