Milkweeds and Butterflies #2

Different milkweeds, same butterflies…

Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)

The long narrow leaves of Swamp Milkweed distinguishes it from other milkweeds. Its beautiful flowers make it a desirable plant in the garden and attractive to butterflies and hummingbirds. As expected from its name, Swamp Milkweed is typically found near water in the wild. However it can thrive in an average garden, as long as it is kept watered.


In elementary school I remember bringing in these caterpillars with a few milkweed leaves for show-and-tell, hoping they’d turn into monarchs.

Here is a similar show-and-tell. Today I’m showing the caterpillars on their Swamp Milkweeds; hoping to return later to capture the metamorphosis.

Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)

Described previously, but I got some better pictures….

Understory; Shrubbery #2, Gray Alder and Hazelnut

The perimeter of our lake has a nearly continuous natural hedge. The picture below shows this continuous wall of bushes rimming one of the lake’s islands. This bushy barrier at the water’s edge is predominantly Gray Alder.

Gray Alder (Alnus incana)

According to the Minnesota DNR, many smaller lakes and ponds in northern Minnesota are ringed by thickets of Gray Alder — commonly called Speckled Alder because of the scattered white lenticels on its stems. It prefers wet areas, which explains its prevalence on the shoreline. It has no commercial uses, but does provide erosion control. Plus, its branches seem to be a favorite of beavers.

Gray Alder flowers in early spring, the cylindrical clusters of its small flowers are called catkins. Female catkins develop into the small cones seen in the center of the photo to the left.

Gray Alder and Hazelnut

Gray Alder and Hazelnut are both in the birch family (Betulaceae).  Grey Alder is everywhere along our lakeshore, while Hazelnut bushes seem to be absent right next to the water. 

The picture to the right shows an area a few yards from the lake’s edge. Taller Gray Alders are towering over shorter, darker-green Hazelnut bushes. Further away from shore, the Hazelnut predominates in the understory.

Two species of Hazelnut coexist here, the American Hazelnut and the Beaked Hazelnut. They are described below.

American Hazelnut (Corylus americana)

The American Hazelnut bush bears hard-shelled nuts encased by stiff green bracts. In late summer the nuts grow so that they are exposed through the bracts and change color to brown. The nuts are smaller than commercially-grown hazelnuts (filberts), but they are tasty. Squirrels, chipmunks, and other animals will be in competition with you for the nuts.

Beaked Hazelnut (Corylus cornuta)

Beaked Hazelnut is very similar to American Hazelnut, the major difference is the beak-shaped husk surrounding the nuts on this plant.

Reportedly, Beaked Hazelnut prefer areas a bit wetter than American Hazelnuts. However, I find them growing intermingled, with no discernable preferences. For both species, bushes getting abundant sunlight produce noticeably more nuts.

Below are two pictures, each a side-by-side comparison of Beaked and American Hazelnuts (as of July 31). The image on the left show the nuts still in their husks, and the image on the right shows the nuts with husks removed. The two nuts from the Beaked Hazelnut appear more mature than the six nuts from the American Hazelnut cluster. The nuts are smaller than commercially grown hazelnuts, but once they ripen in late summer they are every bit as edible. Websites are available to help you find, harvest, and prepare wild hazelnuts,

Could hazelnuts be a profitable crop in the Upper Midwest?

The Upper Midwest Hazelnut Development Initiative (UMHDI) is a group promoting hazelnut cultivation as a new crop in the Upper Midwest. Their website contains a wealth of information about hazelnuts. Here is a list of interesting facts:

  • The top hazelnut producer in the world, by far, is Turkey. This production is from the European hazelnut; a plant that is more tree-like than native North American hazelnuts.
  • 99% of the current US hazelnut production is from Oregon.
  • Various hybrid crosses of the American, Beaked, and European Hazelnuts are being tested in the Midwest in hopes of finding an economically viable cultivar.
  • Hazelnut oil is 81% oleic acid, which makes it very heart healthy; it is also well-suited for production of biodiesel fuel. Hazelnut has the potential to become the first perennial oilseed crop in the Midwest, a big plus for sustainability.

Lily Pads

Lily pads have proliferated in Big Bass Lake. A kayak trip this weekend found the lake’s edges covered.

Watershield (Brasenia schreberi)

The pads of watershield are slightly smaller than other common lily pads, and they are more elliptical. It blooms throughout the summer, but we did not notice any of the smaller pink-purple flowers.

Its most interesting and noticeable feature was a thick coating of very slippery mucilage (slime!) coating the underside of the pads.

Because of the sliminess, I was surprised to read that it is edible and considered a delicacy in Japan. Further reading revealed that Watershield is best eaten as a young plant, before the mucilage is prevalent. Still…

American White Water-Lily (Nymphaea odorata)

The White Water Lily is commonly seen in area lakes. This picture from Big Bass Lake shows the contrast between its larger split leaf (at the upper right) and the smaller oval unsplit pads of Watershield. Also, the Watershield is a duller olive-green color.

Its prefered habit is clear water up to 5 feet deep with mucky soil at the bottom.

The prevalence of White Water-Lily along lake shores can interfere with boat access to docks. A website of the Minnesota DNR specifies that dock owners have the right to clear a 15′-wide channel through aquatic plants to access clear water. Beyond that, checking regulations prior to clearing aquatic plants is advisable.

I think there is room today to show off last night’s dramatic sunset …

July Brings New Wildflowers #3 Yellow

Many different yellow wildflowers have appeared recently. So this is a longer post than usual.

The first grouping includes four plants that have a “weedy” appearance. Despite this, their flowers are surprisingly attractive.

Meadow Hawkweed (Hieracium caespitosum); upper left of image

This is an invasive non-native species relatively new to Minnesota. Like the related Orange Hawkweed, it is spreading southwest in the state after its introduction in the Duluth area.

Yellow Avens (Geum aleppicum); lower left in image

This is a plant in the rose family that is found throughout the Northern Hemisphere. As is the case with most of these plants, various medicinal properties are attributed to it. More interestingly, in medieval Europe Yellow Avens was thought to protect your home from the devil.

Golden Ragwort (Packera aurea); center of image

There is a long list of ailments that are supposedly helped by application of Golden Ragwort, in particular issues with the reproductive system. However, it contains toxic pyrrolizidine alkaloids, which can lead to liver problems. It seems clear that herbal remedies like this should be used with caution.

Field Mustard (Brassica rapa); right side of image

This is a non-native species that has many cultivated subspecies. The subspecies oleifera is field mustard, which is a common weed. More useful subspecies include turnips and bok choy. A closely related species is the plant that produces canola oil (Brassica napus)

Tall Buttercup (Ranunculus acris)

Most of the ~15 buttercup species in Minnesota are native, however the Tall Buttercup is not. Its alternate name, crowfoot, comes from the resemblance of its leaves to birds feet. It is native to Europe and is considered a weed here. Of particular concern is the bitter toxic oil that it contains, protoanemonin. This is a serious irritant to grazing animals, known to cause blistering of mouths and even deaths of cattle.

Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis)

There are eight native species of evening primrose in Minnesota, this example is the Common Evening Primrose. Its flowers open at dusk and wilt away the following day; ideal for night-pollinating insects.

The plant has a long tradition of medicinal application. Evening Primrose Oil (EPO), made from its seeds, is commercially available because of its reported healing properties. Gamma-linolenic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid, is thought to be the active healing agent in this oil. The most convincing application of EPO has been for treatment of skin conditions like eczema. Studies of other applications have more ambiguous results. Evening primrose is also edible — including its fleshy roots which can be prepared like potatoes.

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)

Black-eyed Susan is a very common and popular plant; it occurs wild and is often used as a domesticated plant in landscaping. It is the state flower of Maryland.

Four varieties of Black-eyed Susan are recognized in the US. The variety pulcherrima occurs throughout eastern North America, and is likely the variety seen in Minnesota. 

The origin of its name is likely the poem “Black-Eyed Susan” by the English poet John Gay (1685-1732):

When Black-Eyed Susan came aboard,
and eyed the burly men.
“Tell me ye sailors, tell me true
Does my Sweet William sail with you?”

Smooth Oxeye (Heliopsis helianthoides)

Smooth Oxeye is not a true sunflower, but it is so similar that an alternate name for it is False Sunflower. It is a native plant in Minnesota, and also a popular garden plant. Smooth Oxeyes are prevalent along the roadsides in our area.

Woodland Sunflower (Helianthus strumosus) Jerusalem Artichoke (Helianthus strumosus)

Native sunflower species are similar to one another. The Minnesota Wildflower site provides tips on making correct ID’s — I believe these pictures are the two listed species, but there is some uncertainty.

The Jerusalem Artichoke was cultivated by Native Americans for its tubers, and was important food source for them. They provided Jerusalem Artichoke for Lewis and Clark to eat on their expedition. In Germany an alcoholic drink, Jerusalem Artichoke Brandy, is made from these tubers.

The tuber reportedly tastes like artichoke. The connection to “Jerusalem” is uncertain but likely is a corruption of an Italian word “girasola”; translated as “following the sun”.

Old Technology; Is Newer Necessarily Better?

Mowing the dog’s yard using a manual reel mower

Departing from the usual for one post to advocate an unconventional method to mow lawn — the old-style, non-motorized reel mower. I got one of these mowers for the first time about four years ago, and was surprised at how well it worked. Since then, I’ve used this type of mower a lot; the images and text following show an example from this morning.

The images above show my manual reel mower; plus before and after shots of the lawn I mowed with it this morning.

The mower cost only about $100, consumes no gas (obviously), and is very quiet. It cuts a 16″ swath, there are models available that cut 20″.

This lawn is our fenced-in dog run, it’s approximately 46′ by 35′, so about 1600 square feet. Mowing it today took just 15 minutes using the 16″ manual mower. Rough calculation estimated that it required 400 steps, and my wrist monitor credited me with 140 calories burned (certainly a low estimate).

So, the manual reel mower has many advantages. It is cheap, so quiet that you can mow anytime without disturbing neighbors, and good exercise. To my eye it does just as good of a job as power mowers. You do have to keep up with the mowing though, it does not do well with tall grass.

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.