Understory; Shrubberies #1

Here are some of the smaller trees and bushes that exist beneath the treetops and above the forest floor in our Minnesota lake region. This “understory” provides food and cover for wildlife.

Wild Red Raspberry (Rubus idaeus)

Red Raspberry is a native plant common throughout Minnesota and easily recognized. It is likely the wild berry most often eaten by people.

In our area the raspberries are especially noticeable now, because of their eye-catching ripe fruit. They are most commonly found in the dappled shade at the edges of forested areas.

Stems, or canes, sent up by raspberry plant in spring (primocane) typically do not produce fruit in their first year. It is in its second year that the canes, now called floricane, produce flowers and fruit. Botanically, raspberries are actually not berries, rather they are an aggregate fruit comprised of several drupelets.

Serviceberry (Amelanchier interior),

May and July

The white flowers of the Serviceberry, photographed in May, were featured in one of this blog’s first posts. Now in late July, this update shows the berries produced by this plant. Despite this plant’s alternate name of Juneberry, in our area it seems the berries don’t ripen until July.

Wolfberry (Symphoricarpos occidentalis)

Wolfberry, also called Western Snowberry, is a woody shrub in the honeysuckle family. It is prevalent in prairie settings, but also found at forest edges in Minnesota. A related species with smaller flowers named Snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus), is also common in Minnesota. When I was a kid on a Minnesota farm, I believe we called these plants buckbrush.

The flowers are followed by white berries that are edible by some wildlife, but mildly poisonous to humans.

While these plants are native, they are considered undesirable in pasturelands.

Bush Honeysuckle

(Diervilla lonicera)

Despite its name, the Bush Honeysuckle is actually not in the Honeysuckle family. The flower is similar to honeysuckles, but the leaves and fruit are quite different.

Bush Honeysuckle is a native low-growing plant that prefers well-drained soils. It is recommended as a landscape plant for use on slopes to prevent erosion. It is also desirable for its striking burgundy color in fall.

July Brings New Wildflowers #2, Purple

Recording changes in wildflower and plant populations as the seasons progress…

Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa)

Bee balm is my favorite of the plants so far investigated. It is a common wildflower, and also is often used in landscaping. In the pictures above, the purple flowers are native Bee Balm along the roadside and the magenta flowers are from domestic plants in our yard. Bees and butterflies are continuously visiting these flowers, as seen in the images. I’ve seen a hummingbird checking out the flowers too.

Among the several alternate names for Bee Balm are Wild Bergamot and Oswego Tea. Bergamot is the name of a totally different plant, a citrus that is famously used to flavor tea (Earl Grey Tea). The name Wild Bergamot for this plant reflects that its leaves have a minty, citrus scent reminiscent of the Bergamot citrus.

As suggested by the other name, Oswego Tea, its leaves can be used to make herbal teas. Reportedly this was a favorite of the settlement of Shakers near Oswego, New York. Online there are a myriad of other suggested uses for this herb’s leaves — from mouthwash to pizza topping.

Fireweed (Chamaenerion angustifolium)

This attractive group of Fireweed is on the Paul Bunyan trail between Walker and Hackensack.

The name Fireweed comes from the observation that this plant quickly colonizes burnt areas. While it establishes itself in bare areas quickly, it does not fare well in competition with other plants.

An alternate name, Great Willow Herb, reflects the resemblance of its leaves to willow leaves.

Fireweed bears a resemblance to Purple Loosestrife, which is an undesirable invasive weed. The Minnesota Wildflowers website gives tips on distinguishing between the two.

The next two plants are examples of extremely noxious weeds that have deceivingly attractive flowers.

Spotted knapweed (Centaurea stoebe)

The Minnesota Wildflower website does not mince words about the non-native spotted knapweed, “I hate this plant”! And, with justification; it contains chemicals that poison the soil for native plants. It is on Minnesota’s prohibited/control weed list, and is one of three plants that are targeted by the state’s bio-control program (the other two are leafy spurge and purple loosestrife). In the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s Noxious Weed List, it appears as a weed that is established in Minnesota, but must be controlled.

Spiny Plumeless Thistle (Carduus acanthoides)

This is another villain, on the same Minnesota noxious weed list as Spotted Knapweed. This thistle, the spiniest in the state, has been invading Minnesota from the Dakotas, especially over the last 30 years. It is native to open grasslands in Eurasia.

The Colorado Department of Agriculture provides a fact sheet describing this thistle and the most effective means of controlling it. Reportedly it does not compete well against established native plants, but effectively invades disturbed areas like roadsides and vacant lots. Each mature plant can produce thousands of seeds — cutting them down on sight seems advisable!

Milkweeds and Butterflies

Monarch & Great Spangled Fritillary

Most would likely recognize the butterfly to the far right as a Monarch, but the Great Spangled Fritillary? I had never heard of that. Luckily, along with nearly everything else, there is a site devoted to helping non-experts identify butterflies.

Also, this milkweed appears to be the Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). The USDA page describing the Common Milkweed calls it a mega food mart for insects. However, milkweeds contain cardiac glycoside compounds, which are toxic to many insects and animals. For those insects that can tolerate milkweed, this toxicity becomes a defense against being eaten.

Oval-leaf Milkweed (Asclepias ovalifolia)

This is another milkweed; straightforward, right? Little did I know that there are at least 14 different types of milkweed in Minnesota (14 are listed on the Minnesota wildflowers site). Looking over the choices, the plant pictured here definitely matches the oval leaf species.

The Oval Leaf Milkweed is relatively rare, but most common in Minnesota, Iowa, and the Dakotas.

July Brings New Wildflowers #1, White

Recording changes in wildflower and plant populations as the seasons progress…

Bouncing Bet (Saponaria officinalis).

This is a non-native plant with several alternate names (Soapwort, Latherwort, Lady’s-wash Bowl, London Pride). Since early July it has become very prevalent along local gravel roads; unsurprisingly it is described as quite invasive. Locally the flower is white with a hint of lavender. The lavender is more pronounced in some images online.

Many of this plant’s names refer to the fact that it has commonly been used in the past to make soap. Its name “London Pride” reflects that it was planted alongside city streets to mask smells of poor sanitation.

Its “main” name, Bouncing Bet, has a fairly ridiculous origin. Reportedly, it is because the flower’s petal resembles the rear view of a bent-over washerwoman (name of Bet).

Campion, a wildflower that blooms a few weeks earlier, looks somewhat similar.

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium).

This is a plant native to the temperate regions of the northern hemisphere that is renowned for medicinal properties. Its genus name (Achillea) was assigned by Linnaeus in 1753 and refers to the Greek hero Achilles, who supposedly used yarrow to staunch his warrior’s wounds. A fellow blogger has checked on this and finds that the herb used by Achilles really never was explicitly identified as yarrow.

In any case, yarrow has been used for centuries as a treatment effective in stopping the flow of blood from wounds. Warriors in the days of sword fighting particularly relied on it. Native Americans used yarrow extensively for pain relief. Remarkably, yarrow residue has been detected in tartar from 50,000 year-old Neanderthal teeth. Because yarrow is bitter, the assumption is that this Neanderthal was using it as medicine and not food.

In the Middle Ages, before the use of hops in brewing, yarrow was one of many bitter herbs used to flavor beer. The mixture of these herbs was called gruit.

The species name of yarrow, millefolium, means “thousand leaves”, appropriate because of its many finely divided leaflets. The horribly invasive Eurasian watermilfoil is a different plant (Myriophyllum spicatum).

Spreading Dogbane (Apocynum androsaemifolium)

Spreading dogbane is small bushy plant with fairly inconspicuous white flowers, it becomes more noticeable in the fall when its leaves turn bright yellow. Plants in the dogbane and milkweed family are related. Like milkweed, this plant bleeds a sticky white sap that is somewhat toxic to people (and dogs).

Also like milkweeds, the nectar of dogbane flowers are an important food source for monarch butterflies. Butterflies, with their long tongues, can safely access the nectar of these flowers. Flies, with short tongues, are commonly trapped by the flower; which explains its alternate name, Fly-trap Dogbane.

White Sweet Clover (Melilotus alba)

The “Picture This” app identifies this by an alternate name, Honey Clover. This clover is an invasive species from Eurasia; it was brought to North America long ago as a forage crop. Now many states consider it a noxious weed.

The problem with White Sweet Clover is that it can out-compete native species. If unchecked it can displace desirable natives in grasslands.

The plant has many seemingly desirable characteristics. Like most legumes, its roots are associated with nitrogen-fixing bacteria that fertilize soil. It has also been planted because it is a good source of nectar for honey bees.

There is a good online report from the US Department of Agriculture that reviews several applications where White Sweet Clover was once considered beneficial. It goes on to discuss undesirable effects of its introduction that were not initially apparent. A non-expert (like me) gets the impression that the presence of sweet clover has pros and cons that are complicated and thus is a subject of considerable study.

Other Roadside Features

Previous posts have focused on the plants along the roadside, but a few other interesting things deserve attention. This post features two of them.

Glacial Till

Alongside our gravel road there is this terrific exposure of the glacial till that covers the entire region. Glacial till is a catch-all term for the sediment left behind as glaciers receded. This sediment is extremely poorly sorted, including everything from boulders to clay. This poor sorting is diagnostic of glacial deposits; sediments deposited by water or wind typically have more uniform particle sizes.

Anybody Home?

Two weeks later, not much change.

Further up the same road some animal has apparently made a home for itself. Online sites are available that provide hints on how to identify the animals responsible for holes like this. Fox and badger seem to be the most likely candidates. The hole is slightly larger than the typical fox hole (20cm), but indistinct paw prints that can be seen in the second picture more resemble examples of fox prints. Yet to be determined…


Previous posts have covered the white, yellow and pink wildflowers we have seen in June along the roadside in Northern Minnesota. Purple is another common color for the local wildflowers, and today we’ll focus on those.

Prairie Phlox (Phlox pilosa)

Along our roadside Prairie Phlox is concentrated in a sandier area that gets lots of sun. This photo was taken on June 20, about at the height of its display. It has a wide distribution, found from Florida to North Dakota.

Prairie Phlox is also a popular garden plant, available from several nurseries, especially those specializing in native plants. It is very attractive to butterflies, which are required by the plant for cross-pollination.

Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia)

Harebell has a number of alternate names, The “Picture This” app calls it Bluebell Bellflower. We first notice Harebell blooming in mid-June and it has continued since then. The plant appears delicate, but actually is very hardy. It blooms throughout the summer and is able to flourish in rocky soils.

Harebell is found throughout the Northern Hemisphere, but is most commonly associated with Scotland. It was once used there to make blue dye to color Scottish tartans, and it is the symbol of the MacDonald clan.

Large Beardstongue (Penstemon grandiflorus)

This plant in the snapdragon family (Scrophulariaceae) is really striking! We saw it blooming on June 25 while biking along the Heartland Trail near Nevis MN. The Large Beardstongue blooms for a short time in May-June and is relatively rare as a wildflower; it is most commonly found in the northern Great Plains states.

This is another plant that is available for home gardeners from nurseries specializing in native plants. It is very attractive to hummingbirds and bees.

Self Heal (Prunella vulgaris)

This plant is different from the wildflowers previously described. It wasn’t seen along the roadside or in the woods; I was surprised to find a patch of it in the middle of my lawn. I read that it is characterized by purple multi-flowered spikes, but I mow too frequently to have seen that.

Self Heal is a member of the mint family (Lamiaceae). Like other mint plants it tends to invasively take over wherever it is planted. Unlike other familiar mint plants, it does not have distinctive smell or taste. It does attract butterflies and bees.

As its name suggests, Self Heal has been considered to have several beneficial medicinal qualities. Reportedly in the past it was highly esteemed by herbal healers. The tannins contained in Seal Heal likely allow it to soothe sore throats, as well as other sores and wounds. Recent research has found that Self Heal is also a strong antioxidant.

As an update…

To show its appearance outside of my mowed lawn, the picture to the left shows Self Heal along the roadside.

State Flower and More

Yesterday while biking around the area, I managed to get a few interesting photos

The best find was this clump of Showy Lady Slippers (Cypripedium reginae), the state flower of Minnesota. Previously I had only seen blooming Lady Slippers in late June, so I was surprised and pleased by this fine display on July 8.

Who would expect that Minnesota would be the only state with an orchid as its state flower? Prior to 1925, when the state passed laws protecting the plant, Lady Slippers were commonly seen decorating rural churches in the summertime.

Lady Slippers are uncommon and slow-growing. A plant may grow 16 years prior to blooming. However they can live 50 years or more.

You can see that this is not a good picture, but it was fun seeing these Sandhill Cranes along the road. They flapped down in front of me and ran down the road as I approached, so this photo is the best that could be done with just an iphone.

Sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis) have an interesting recent history. In the 1800’s and early 1900’s over-hunting severely reduced the number of this once-abundant species. In the 1940’s their population in Minnesota was estimated at only 40-50. Since conservation measures have been implemented, these cranes have made a remarkable comeback. Recent counts in Minnesota have found thousands of these birds.

They have rebounded to the point that some farmers consider them a nuisance, because they eat grains. Limited hunting of the cranes has been re-established in some areas. They reportedly are edible, tasting like pork chops; probably because of their grain-based diet.

To end this entry; here is a scenic shot of the lake taken right before sunrise.

Loon Update #1

Below are a few better photos of our loon family — better mainly because I was able to borrow a real camera vs. just using an iphone. Maybe I should go shopping…

The image above shows the family of three loons occupying our lake this year. Baby loons, called chicks, can swim nearly immediately after hatching, and start diving within 2-3 days. At this point the family abandons their nest and moves to a “nursery area” of the lake while the chick develops.

This chick appears to be thriving. Yesterday we saw it diving and swimming long distances underwater.

The male loon picks the nesting site for each breeding pair and vigorously defends it from loon “floaters”. Floaters are 2-7 year-old unpaired loons that drift from lake to lake — the outsiders of loon society.

The loon in the image above is showing off his territorial display — in this case to warn away me and my kayak.

The geographic distribution of loons over the year is illustrated in a beautiful map provided on the website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

More updates to come…


In addition to yellow and white, pink and purple are common colors for local wildflowers. Pink and purple are somewhat similar and could be grouped in one post, but that would be too long. So, today I’ll review the pink flowers we’ve seen in June; expect a post with the more purplish flowers soon.

Smooth Wild Rose (Rosa blanda)

When seeing this flower I assumed it was the Prairie Rose (which I am familiar with as the state flower of North Dakota). However, the “Picture This” app identifies these common roadside roses as the Smooth Wild Rose. The two are similar, but the Minnesota Wildflower webpage cites the lack of prickles on new stems as the distinguishing characteristic.

Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum)

The Wild Geranium is an attractive plant found commonly in shadier areas along the roadside. It blooms for only a short time in June.

Being familiar only with the geraniums offered by nurseries, I was surprised to learn of this common native related species. This wild geranium can be cultivated for use as an ornamental plant.

Philadelphia Fleabane (Erigeron philadelphicus)

Given the name of this plant, I was expecting to learn of interesting links to Philadelphia and stories on how it may be effectively used to repel fleas. Unfortunately , there actually is no evidence that it is effective as a insect repellent, and I found no reason for it being named after Philadelphia.

It is native to North America, and is an invasive species in Europe and Asia.

Here in Minnesota it has light pink to nearly while flowers and has a gangly, weedy form. It is a common roadside plant that has been in bloom since mid-June.