Native Plant Community and Habitat Spotlights: Anoka Sand Plain, Big Woods, and St. Paul-Baldwin Plains and Moraines

Southern Dry-Mesic Oak Woodland

landscape of northern pin, northern red, and white oak

This forest community is very common on the excessively drained sand and gravel soils of the Anoka Sand Plain and St. Paul–Baldwin Plains and Moraines subsections. The canopy of this community is often interrupted to continuous (50–100% cover) and is typically dominated by northern pin, northern red, and white oak, with lesser amounts of bur oak and red maple. Red maple is also common in the subcanopy and shrub layers along with chokecherry, American hazelnut, gray dogwood, and prickly ash. Pointed-leaved tick trefoil, Clayton's sweet cicely, hog peanut, starflower, Canada mayflower, wild geranium, lady fern, interrupted fern, and Pennsylvania sedge are commonly present in the ground-layer.

The older canopy trees in this community often have open, spreading branches, indicating they likely grew in more open conditions than currently exists on the site. Frequent fires that once affected this community as mild surface fires roughly every 10 years and catastrophic fires about every 110 years caused these open conditions. The development of modern fire suppression has led to the loss of this mosaic of oak openings and closing of the forest canopy. To keep this native plant community healthy, you should consider management activities that mimic the frequent mild to severe fires that once shaped this ecosystem. You might consider a strategy of creating openings such as harvesting or girdling trees to maintain an interrupted canopy with open growing conditions and perform prescribed burning in the openings when possible. Be sure to avoid harvesting, pruning, or injuring oak trees from April through July when the risk of oak wilt infections is high.

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Southern Floodplain Forest

landscape of Silver maples

Floodplain forests are found in the bottomlands adjacent to the Mississippi, Minnesota, and St. Croix rivers and their larger tributaries. These deciduous forests are dry most of the year but exposed to seasonal flooding that saturates the soil and deposits piles of silt, sand, and debris. Silver maples typically dominate the canopy, often occurring in nearly pure stands, along with occasional green ash, cottonwood, and American elm. Woody climbers such as wild grape, climbing poison ivy, and moonseed are often present, but the understory layers are often sparse due to the effects of spring inundation and floodwater scouring. As the summer progresses, the ground-layer becomes more developed and contains a number of annual or flood-tolerant perennial species such as false nettle, Ontario aster, Virginia wild rye, and dense patches of wood nettle.

Despite the seasonal flooding, a number of invasive species have become abundant in these lowland forests, including creeping Charlie, garlic mustard, and reed canary grass. Reed canary grass is especially aggressive in these lowland communities and impedes the establishment of tree seedlings, leading to limited forest regeneration. Monitoring the understory and edges of your woodland for these invasive plants—and taking fast action to control them—can help protect this biologically unique ecosystem.

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Southern Mesic Maple-Basswood Forest

landscape showing a variety of basswod and elm with wild ginger growing ground-layer.

This mesic forest community was once common on the Big Woods subsection's rich, well-drained, loamy soils and has been greatly reduced by land use changes since European settlement. It is currently considered "imperiled" based on threats facing the remaining examples. It is typically dominated by sugar maple, with lesser amounts of basswood, northern red oak, red elm, and American elm. The forest floor is often covered with ephemeral flowers such as cut‑leaved toothwort and Dutchman's breeches in the spring before the canopy trees leaf out. Other important ground-layer species include Virginia waterleaf, bloodroot, yellow violet, large-flowered bellwort, wild leek, blue cohosh, and early meadow-rue. The shrub and subcanopy layers are rare to interrupted (5-75% cover) depending on available light filtering though the canopy. They include sugar maple, bitternut hickory, basswood, ironwood, prickly gooseberry, and chokecherry.

Catastrophic disturbances were historically rare in this community, while small disturbances that created a mix of canopy layers were far more common. Tailoring your firewood harvesting strategy to create small gaps—removing single trees or small clusters in your woods—will allow some of the sugar maple, elm, and basswood saplings to develop and create a mix of tree ages, which gives your forest more vertical diversity. Other species such as northern red oak, bitternut hickory, and big-toothed aspen need full sunlight to reach maturity so creating some medium to large gaps—up to an acre—in your woods will encourage these species. Whether you choose to create small or large gaps, you 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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Central Mesic Hardwood Forest

landscape forest of basswood, northern red oak, and sugar maple

This hardwood forest community is relatively common in east-central and central Minnesota. The continuous canopy (greater than 75% cover) is usually dominated by basswood, northern red oak, and sugar maple, with smaller amounts of green ash, paper birch, red maple, bur oak, and quaking aspen. Chokecherry, pagoda dogwood, prickly gooseberry, and beaked hazel, along with sugar maple, ironwood, basswood, and northern red oak seedlings and saplings can be found in the shrub-layer. Common species in the ground-layer are early meadow-rue, lady fern, large-flowered bellwort, large-leaved aster, and wild sarsaparilla

Since oaks are a desirable species for mills, focus your work on removing trees around high-quality oaks to reduce competition. Be sure to not to injure oak trees from April through July when the risk of oak wilt infection in high. Additionally, prior to a harvest, control buckthorn and other invasive plants. If not performing a clear-cut, avoid removing the biggest and best trees during a harvest. Retaining and encouraging the growth of a diversity of trees, especially trees such as bitternut hickory, sugar and red maple, basswood, northern red oak, white oak, and bur oak, which provide wildlife habitat and makes your woods more resilient to climate change.

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purple cone flower in forground and lake with marina in background

Lakeshore is prevalent in east-central Minnesota. Shores may be sandy or muddy and could contain a variety of terrestrial and aquatic plants depending on the season and current water level. Just above the normal water level you would find shrubs and forbs such as sandbar willow, touch-me-not, and swamp milkweed. Below the normal water level you may find broad-leaved cattail, an assortment of sedges and rushes, and floating plants like water lilies and pondweeds.

A variety of ecosystems, from upland forest to lowland swamp, surround these lakes. While proper management along the shore provides important protection from waves, land use and vegetation management in the surrounding areas also play key roles in erosion control. Forests help filter runoff and hold soil in place. Land uses such as agriculture and lawns may contribute soil and other inputs like fertilizer and pesticides to runoff flowing into lakes. Consider the impacts that all land use and management activities have on your lake, even beyond the shores.

Oak Woodlands

Oak forest with fall color leaves covering the forest floor.

Oak woodlands provide important habitat in your region for many wildlife species including red-shouldered hawks, northern barrens tiger beetles, eastern fox snakes, northern long-eared bats, red-headed woodpeckers, whip‑poor‑wills, eastern meadowlarks, and numerous invertebrate pollinators including many butterfly species. Oaks are a keystone species (a species in which the ecosystem is largely dependent on). This habitat has come under increasing pressure from invasive species, which threaten all components of this habitat type. Oak wilt is an example of an invasive disease, which can quickly kill the existing oak trees. Invasive plants such as garlic mustard and buckthorn compete with native forest plants, including tree seedlings, and negatively impact forest regeneration. Oak woodlands in your region are also under increasing pressure from residential development due to their proximity to the Twin Cities Metropolitan Area. If you own land in this habitat type, consider your role in managing your woods carefully to maintain this habitat on the landscape for the great diversity of resident and migratory species that rely on it.

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