Native plant community spotlights for Northern Superior Uplands

Northern Mesic Mixed Forest

Aspen, paper birch and white pine with mixed shrub understory

This is one of the most common native plant communities in northeastern Minnesota and is very important to the biology and economy of the region. Young forests of this community consist largely of aspen that gives way to a mixed canopy of paper birch and white pine with balsam fir, red pine, and old aspen. Eventually this middle-aged forest declines and the plant community is ultimately dominated by white pine and white spruce with northern white cedar on some sites. Common understory plants of this mixed-forest community include wild sarsaparilla, large-leaved aster, bluebead lily, bunchberry, Canada mayflower, beaked hazelnut, fly honeysuckle, and mountain maple.

When in a younger stage, this native plant community attracts grouse and moose who rely on abundant aspen. Aspen begin to disappear around 50 years after a fire or harvest. Cutting mature aspen causes it to sprout tender young shoots from the roots, providing 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 along the perimeter of your wildlife opening.

This plant community has seen significant declines in its long-lived conifers (pine, spruce, and cedar) over time. Consider planting white pine, white spruce, and northern white cedar in and around your openings.

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Northern Dry-Mesic Mixed Woodland

mixed forest with understory of shrubs

Red pine, white pine, quaking aspen, and paper birch are often dominant components of these northern woodlands. These species are typically mixed together but individual sites can range from solely coniferous to solely deciduous. Small openings are common, with the forest canopy typically covering 50 to 75 percent of the area. Common ground layer plants include Canada mayflower, wild sarsaparilla, large-leaved aster, and bracken. Beaked hazelnut is present in the shrub layer of nearly all sites and is usually abundant.

White pine has declined by 75 percent since the late-nineteenth century. This large, beautiful tree is among the most iconic of all Minnesota tree species and fills many important ecological roles. Restoring this species typically requires an active approach that includes protection from browsing deer through fencing or bud-capping (placing a folded piece of paper and a few staples over the top bud), careful pruning to prevent blister rust infection, and controlling competing weeds and shrubs. With these efforts, you can play a role in restoring this species to its former glory as the monarch of the forest for future generations.

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Northern Mesic Hardwood Forest

mixed forest of sugar maplem northern red oak, quaking aspen with shrub-layer

The canopy of this common hardwood community is usually dominated by sugar maple or northern red oak with lesser amounts of basswood, paper birch, and quaking aspen. Wild sarsaparilla, large-leaved aster, mountain rice grass, and Pennsylvania sedge are all common ground-layer plants, with Pennsylvania sedge often the most abundant ground-layer species in this community. The shrub-layer is typically dominated by sugar maple saplings, along with beaked hazelnut, chokecherry, pagoda dogwood, fly honeysuckle, and balsam fir.

Catastrophic disturbances were historically rare, while small disturbances that create gaps resulting in a mix of shrub, understory, and canopy layers, were far more common. A firewood harvesting strategy that creates small gaps—single trees or small clusters (by removing single trees or small clusters of trees)—will allow some of the maple saplings to grow and give your forest more vertical diversity. If you want to add more species diversity to your forest, consider developing additional gaps up to an acre in size that may encourage oak and birch. Either strategy will help create diverse tree ages similar to historic disturbances, which will create better wildlife habitat and help your woods resist environmental stress. In some of these openings, you may even try planting northern white cedar seedlings. (You many need to fence these seedlings to protect them from browsing deer and rabbits.) This tree is often thought of as a lowland species but was once a component of these northern mesic forests—especially along Lake Superior's North Shore.

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Northern Poor Dry-Mesic Mixed Woodland

forest mix of jack pine and qualing aspen and understory of ferns

This native plant community is common across northeast Minnesota and extends across the Canadian border in areas with relatively nutrient-poor and shallow soils that cover bedrock. Fires rejuvenated these woods about once every 170 years. After a fire, young woods dominated by jack pine with a mix of quaking aspen and paper birch formed. Over time the canopy becomes dominated by red pine and paper birch as jack pine and quaking aspen decline. Without fire, the woods will mature to a mix of black spruce with some paper birch, balsam fir, white pine, and old jack pine. Often these mature woods are overgrown with shade tolerant conifers, making them more vulnerable to catastrophic damage by wildfire and insects such as spruce budworm.

Due to the suppression of wildfires, this native plant community is not experiencing natural rejuvenation. Conducting a timber harvest is one way to mimic natural disturbance and regrow jack pine and quaking aspen while also reducing wildfire risk. Deciding on how much harvesting to do depends on your goals. If you have mature aspen and jack pine, harvesting the majority of the trees in the upper canopy will restore young woods. If your goal is to increase the amount of aspen, harvesting a large portion of the trees in the winter will favor aspen regrowth. If you want more jack pine than aspen, a summer harvest that includes scattering any jack pine tops then direct seeding and planting jack pine while controlling aspen and other tree species is needed. If you want to favor long-lived conifers like white pine, selectively harvest around white pines that are good at producing seed. Care must be taken to protect remaining canopy and understory trees from damage during the harvest.

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lakeshore showing with a pine forest and sandy shore with reed grasses.

Lakeshore is prevalent in northeast Minnesota. Shores may be sandy or rocky 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 alder, meadowsweet, spotted Joe Pye weed, and sweet gale. 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. Taking care of shallow-water plants can protect shorelines from waves, and properly managing vegetation growing along the shore prevents soils from depositing into the water. Woodlands filter runoff and hold soil in place, whereas agriculture and lawns do little to prevent soil, fertilizer, and pesticides from washing into lakes. It is important to consider the impacts that all land use and management activities have on your lake, even beyond the shores.

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Spotlight: Northern White-Cedar Forests

Norther white cedar forest in the fall.

Northern white cedar is a slow growing, long-lived, shade tolerant tree that grows on both upland and lowland sites. Cedar forests provide important habitat for many wildlife species in your region including blue-spotted salamanders, Swainson's thrush, winter wren, moose, and northern flying squirrels. In total, nearly 100 species of birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians make their home in white-cedar forests. Despite the long list of animals that use cedar forests, perhaps the most notable is the white-tailed deer. In the winter, large numbers of deer gather in areas with mature white cedar. These "deer yards" provide shelter from the elements and allow deer to save energy and move with greater ease. Ho

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