Native Plant Community and Habitat Spotlights: Agassiz Lowlands and Littlefork-Vermilion Uplands

Northern Wet-Mesic Boreal Hardwood-Conifer Forest

landscape of quaking aspen, paper birch and red maple

The canopy of this common forest community is usually dominated by quaking aspen, often with paper birch and balsam fir and less frequently with white spruce, red maple, black ash, and basswood. Common ground-layer plants include Canada mayflower, wild sarsaparilla, sweet-scented bedstraw, dwarf raspberry, and large-leaved aster. The shrub-layer has variable cover and is frequently dominated by beaked hazelnut, but also often includes chokecherry, bush honeysuckle, juneberries, and mountain maple.

When in a younger stage, this native plant community is very attractive to grouse and moose due to the abundance of aspen. Cutting patches of mature aspen causes it to sprout from the roots, providing an abundance of tender young shoots and a protective thicket for grouse. Other animals, such as deer and songbirds, can benefit from this type of management as well. You might consider implementing this strategy in the vicinity of your wildlife opening.

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Northern Spruce Bog

landscape of black spruce and scattered tamaracks

This extremely nutrient poor and acidic plant community is found in poorly drained level basins with a carpet of peat-forming sphagnum moss. The canopy is often sparse and typically dominated by stunted (less than 30-feet tall) black spruce with scattered tamaracks. The understory is composed of prominent, and often ubiquitous, low shrubs such as Labrador tea, bog laurel, small cranberry, and leatherleaf. Grasses and sedges are also often present with species such as three-fruited bog sedge and tussock cottongrass.

This plant community is relatively common in northern Minnesota's expansive glacial lake plains, but it is vulnerable to changes in the water cycle that result from road construction or ditching. This community is also vulnerable to aggressive invasive species that may threaten the diversity and community structure of bogs, including glossy buckthorn, narrow-leaved cattail, hybrid cattail, and reed canary grass. At present, these invasive species are either not present in your region or appear to be restricted to the ditches and roads along the margins of bogs.

Monitoring the understory and edges of your spruce bog for these invasive plants—and taking fast action to control them—can help protect this biologically unique northern Minnesota ecosystem that stores greater amounts of carbon than most other forests.

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Northern Mesic Mixed Forest

landscape snorthern red oak and ferns

Photo credit: Ethan Perry

The canopy of this very diverse community often features a mix of tree species, ranging from solely deciduous to solely coniferous. Important canopy species include paper birch, quaking aspen, white pine, balsam fir, white spruce, red pine, and white cedar. The shrub-layer in this community is variable in cover and usually dominated by deciduous species such as beaked hazelnut, fly honeysuckle, and mountain maple, but most sites have at least some balsam fir in the sub-canopy. Common ground-layer plants include wild sarsaparilla, large‑leaved aster, bluebead lily, bunchberry, and Canada mayflower.

Disturbances that created a mix of canopy layers were more common in the natural evolution of this community. Tailoring your firewood harvesting strategy to create medium to large gaps—up to an acre—in your woods will allow paper birch and white pine saplings to develop and give your forest more vertical diversity. If you want to add additional species diversity to your forest, consider developing additional small gaps—single trees or small clusters—that may encourage other species like white spruce, northern white cedar, balsam fir, and red maple. For best results in either gap size, target this activity on areas where some of the desired saplings and seedlings are already present or plan to do some additional planting. Either strategy will help create diverse age groups among your trees, similar to historic disturbances, which will create better wildlife habitat and help your woods be more resistant to environmental stress.

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Northern Wet Ash Swamp

landscape forest of black ash mixed with balsam fir

These native plant communities are widespread across northern and east‑central Minnesota. They grow on mucky mineral soils in shallow basins and ground-water seepage areas and on low, level terrain near waterbodies. They typically have standing water in the spring but drain by late summer. Because ash can tolerate harsh growing conditions of wet forests, their canopies consists of black ash or black ash mixed with other deciduous trees like red maple, quaking aspen, green ash, and balsam poplar. Catastrophic events by wildfire have been historically rare. Smaller disturbances such as windthrow creating gaps in the forest have been more common.

Now is the time to start reducing the amount of black ash in the canopy to prepare for the eventual arrival of emerald ash borer, an invasive beetle that kills 99.9 percent of all ash trees. Due to the wet nature of the soil, harvesting should only occur when the ground is frozen. To prevent sedges from taking over and prolific stump sprouting of ash, avoid a clearcut. Instead, use group selection to create gaps that are one-tenth to a quarter acre in size to mimic windthrow or natural tree death. To add diversity, introduce new tree species and leave non‑ash trees to reseed the area after the harvest. Tree species known to do well in a gap include disease-resistant American elm, balsam poplar, and northern white cedar (cedars will need to be caged or fenced to protect from deer browse). Additional replacement trees include tamarack, yellow birch, red maple, silver maple, and black spruce. Focus on planting trees in mounds above ground. Consider combining a harvest with adjacent landowners to increase appeal to loggers.

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purple cone flower in forground and lake with marina in background

Brushlands in your region provide critical habitat for wildlife dependent on open landscapes. These habitats consist of herbaceous vegetation with scattered clumps of shrubs and trees, and include old fields, sedge meadows, swamps, bogs, and upland shrubs. These brushland habitats are threatened by fragmentation, drainage, succession into forests, and conversion to cropland and tree plantations. As they decline in quantity and quality, so do the wildlife populations that inhabit them such as northern harrier, short-eared owls, yellow rails, loggerhead shrikes, golden-winged warblers, and moose. Brushlands are also home to an especially charismatic, native bird—the sharp-tailed grouse. 'Sharptails' have experienced a long-term population decline and have been designated a species in greatest conservation need due to the threat of habitat loss and degradation. Each spring, males gather on dancing grounds called 'leks' to display and attract females, which then nest in the surrounding brushland habitats. Leks are very open and free of woody vegetation, and used each year unless they or the surrounding nesting and brood-rearing habitat becomes unsuitable. To maintain, enhance, and connect the open character of brushlands, management techniques include prescribed burning, tree removal, mowing, shearing, biomass harvest, and forest management that uses shorter harvest rotation ages. Contact an Area Wildlife Office to reserve a sharptail lek viewing blind where you can observe the mating dance on a crisp spring morning. It is an unforgettable experience!

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