Jim Gilbert, standing in the midst of the blooming prairie surrounding the Traverse de Sioux History Site, asked the small group accompanying him to imagine what St. Peter looked like 150 years ago.

Then, St. Peter sat on the edge of a vast tallgrass prairie that spread through the south of the state and up its eastern border. For thousands of years after the end of the last ice age, nearly one-third of what is now Minnesota was covered with wildflowers and grasses.

Gilbert, director of the Linnaeus Arboretum at Gustavus Adolphus College, was one of two guides leading wildflower tours at the History Site in steamy 90-degree weather Wednesday evening. In July, the number of plants in bloom there reaches its peak.

Gilbert pointed out dozens prairie plants, like the abundant black-eyed Susan. The flower, with yellow petals surrounding a dark brown center, is what he called a "60 mph plant" - one you can identify from the highway.

Black-eyed Susans and big bluestem grass - which towers at six or seven feet in the late summer - are prairie hallmarks.

"You see those two and you know you're in the prairie," Gilbert said.

Among the dozen prairie lovers willing to brave the heat was Miriam Vetter of rural Kasota, who owns a small pasture that has become a bit of prairie. Vetter said it was in bloom, but with what she wasn't sure.

"I don't know their names, that's why I'm here," Vetter said with a laugh.

Penny Purtzer of New Ulm seemed to know all the names, and listed off her favorites, like prairie blazing star.

"I am mad for prairies," Purtzer said.

Purtzer's passion draws her Loess Hills in Iowa, where the pasque flower blooms at Easter time. And she recently returned from the tallgrass prairie in Flint Hills, Kansas, now "at it's peak."

But she loves the Kasota Prairie close to home, too.

"I think people forget this is a very critical juncture of big woods and prairies," she said.

Gilbert explained it was the prairie's perennial grasses, growing and dying for millennia, that created the Midwest's rich top soil.

So much of that topsoil has been tilled, less than 1 percent of Minnesota's native prairie remains.

Gilbert said it is important to protect that 1 percent, because not all of the approximately 200 plants that grow in the tallgrass prairie have been studied by scientists. One could become a new food or the next miracle drug.

Just as important, he said: "It's a part of our heritage."

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