Friday, July 21, 2017

A Summer Night with Lois Nestel

On a recent camping trip, I was reminded of how lovely it is to be outdoors after dark. The sights, the smells, and the sounds are of an entirely different quality than what you find under the sun’s bright rays. Lois Nestel, the Museum’s founding naturalist and director, thought so to. Here, from her “Wayside Wanderings” newspaper column, is a description of the delights of summer nights.

“The night watch has been in frequent session lately. I am not an insomniac, merely a light and fitful sleeper, and the wakeful periods are pleasantly spent in absorbing the night—its scents, its sounds, its movements all so different from those of daytime. Musky, earthy, fecund odors seem to rise and drift on the night air—basic life aromas no longer masked by day’s activities.

“Visual occupation is limited on most nights, but the actions of two creatures have recently been dominant. Against the night sky I have watched the erratic black flutterings of bats and heard the taffeta rustlings of their wings sweeping close to my window in the quest of insects. Nothing sinister here, just small, busy mammals helping hold the insect population in check.

“The other enchanting creature of the night is the firefly, and watching the winking greenish lights against the darkened trees and lawns my mind drifts back to childhood evenings when the things of nature were an unquestioned part of life. In retrospect I smell again the fragrance of the fields of clover and alfalfa and my mother’s roses. I feel again the dew-cooled grass beneath bare feet while racing up and down the lawn to capture fireflies and lock them in a jar. There was endless fascination in those cool winking lights. Sometimes they seemed to flash in unison, sometimes helter-skelter. But the insects that could light the pages of a book at night were disappointingly dull, grubby insects by morning’s light when they would be released. Come evening, though, the chase would be resumed.

“Whether the differing flash sequences I have noticed are those of different species or just individuals I cannot tell, but while the majority sail serenely along blinking their lights rhythmically every few seconds, there are a few which blink rapidly about five times, pause a few seconds and then repeat the series. There was a day when I would have chased them down to make comparisons—now I merely speculate.”

(In case you’re wondering, as I was, the timing and pattern of flashes is unique to each firefly species. Males flash to attract females, and females flash back to signal their interest. Within a species, some males flash longer and quicker than others, which makes them more attractive to both females and predators. Some females even mimic the flash patterns of other firefly species, and then eat the poor souls who come looking for love.)

With that frightful image in your head, let’s return to Lois as she describes the sounds of a summer night.

“I am often lulled to sleep in summer by stereophonic sound, though not the type that usually comes to mind at the use of that term.

“Bedroom windows on two sides filter in their individual sounds to combine into the music of the night.  Most frequently the underlying sound is the symphony of the wind in the trees. Pines to the left are the woodwinds, leafy trees to the right the brasses and percussion, the sounds rising and falling under the fingers of the wind. Passage of air in gusts and eddies produces endless variations on the theme. Leaves clash together to create a blend of sounds, and pine needles whisper and sign in melodies older than mankind.

“Soft breezes may provide a back-ground for a serenade of crickets or, on a moonlit night, the half-phrased notes of a drowsy bird. The hum of insects, the soft rustle of a bat’s wings, a whip-poor-will, a distant barking dog, the measured hooting of an owl blend to produce the heartbeat of the night.

“Even without the wind, the night is seldom silent and the sounds are music to my ears. A rabbit thumps his feet in alarm and a deer blows sharply at some unseen intruder. Raccoons chur in conversation or raise their voices in tremolo wails as they contest over a choice tidbit, and perhaps the most delightful tome is the vocalizing of the coyotes in a wild and haunting madrigal of freedom and solitude.

“Who listens, I wonder? Who hears, or senses the pulsing cadence of the elements? Our ears are tuned to different sounds and behind closed doors we listen to man-made, machine-made din: radio, television, records, and endless small talk. For some this will suffice. To each his own. As for me, nature’s song brings me a special pace and serenity. I ask for no more than that.”

Special Note: Emily’s book, Natural Connections: Exploring Northwoods Nature through Science and Your Senses is here! Order your copy at  Listen to the podcast at!

For 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new exhibit: "Better Together--Celebrating a Natural Community" is now open!

Friday, July 14, 2017

Twinflower Far Away

The sun rose slowly on its long, midsummer track across the sky as we sped west on Interstate 90 in South Dakota. Lush forests, veiled by early morning humidity, fell away to cornfields with scattered, shady farmyards. At first the corn was thigh high; the ample rains and early spring allowing it to race past the folk wisdom of “knee high by the 4th of July.” Then, like going back in time, the corn shrank below the knee-high goal and ended up at ankle high before petering out into short-grass prairie with fewer and fewer scattered trees.

The humidity in the air also disappeared, and despite the vastness of our view over endless rolling hills, the horizon remained sharp. And on that horizon was a small mountain range with its tree cover so dark that from a distance the hills looked black. We’d arrived at the Black Hills.

Suddenly, we were back among trees again, although dry ponderosa pine woodlands had mostly replaced the lush deciduous forests. Thickets of willows huddled along creek ravines, with birch, cottonwood, and bur oak providing a haven for birds.  The Black Hills—rising like an oasis out of the prairie—are a biological mixing place, with species from regions to the east, west, north, and south.

Swooping upward on a series of switchbacks, we arrived at Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park. Trading sandals for hiking boots, and topping off our water supply, we struck out on Trail #9 to Black Elk Peak (formerly Harney Peak), the highest summit in the United States east of the Rocky Mountains.

The first section of trail was all a gradual climb. Afternoon sun glittered on shards of mica in the trail dust. Finally, we began contouring around a ravine, and the trail became flat and shady. The respite from blazing sun and summer heat was welcome. And we weren’t the only ones appreciating the Northwoods-like microclimate of this north facing cul-de-sac. A lush carpet of plants and flowers perched near eye level on the hillside.

I’d been stumped when trying to identify many of the dryland plants we’d seen elsewhere in the hills, but here I was among friends. Wild sarsaparilla spread it compound leaves over little starbursts of white flowers. Bunchberry was in full bloom, with its pure white bracts (the showy part of the flower is not even its petals; its big bracts surround a cluster of tiny flowers) glowing in the shade. And from thick carpets of dollhouse-sized trailing vines, the pink, paired blossoms of twinflower gave the forest floor a Lilliputian look.

These little bell-like flowers exist under the radar of most hikers. They don’t look like much from five feet up. But they did catch the attention of Carl Linnaeus, the “Father of Moderns Taxonomy,” who defined our scientific system of naming living things with a genus and species in 1753. Twinflower was Linnaeus’s special favorite. But although Linnaeus reportedly was arrogant, and named nearly 8,000 plants during his lifetime, he refrained from naming any after himself. Instead, he cheekily named beautiful plants after his supporters and named weeds after his critics.

Linnaeus first named this sweet little flower Rudbeckia, for two Lapland explorers who knew it well. Later on, he also applied Rudbeckia to black-eyed Susans, which left twinflower in need of a new genus. Linnaeus’s friend, Jan Frederik Gronovious, stepped in and named Linnaeus’s favorite flower after the botanist himself. It became Linnaea borealis.

Linnaeus’s influence circles the globe, so it’s appropriate this his namesake plant does as well. Twinflower grows across the northern hemisphere from Sibera to Sweden and across North America. In Europe, foresters consider twinflower to be an indicator of ancient woodlands. I often see it across the upper Great Lakes region, and I’ve also seen it in northern New England. The Rocky Mountains and Pacific Northwest have it, too. Despite being so cosmopolitan, there’s a definite gap in its range across the Great Plains. It can’t survive those stark South Dakota prairies.

So how did this tiny little belle come to be separated east from west? Bunchberry, thimbleberry, wild sarsaparilla, and more share this disjunct pattern of their populations.

Not long after the glaciers melted, these plants would have enjoyed the cool, damp climate they prefer across much of the continent. Then, about 9,000 to 5,000 years ago, the climate warmed. During this Holocene Climate Optimum, warmer, dryer conditions forced these northern species out of the arid Great Plains. They were left to survive in the refuges that mountains and boreal forests still provide. By vining perennially over its habitat, twinflower is able to exist in isolated microhabitats far from its strongholds. But climate change has become a significant concern for the conservation of this species, especially on the edges of its current range.

Although I see it often at home, I felt a special kinship with twinflower on this hot, arid hike as we both found refuge in the cool shade of a north facing slope.

Special Note: Emily’s book, Natural Connections: Exploring Northwoods Nature through Science and Your Senses is here! Order your copy at  Listen to the podcast at!

For 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new exhibit: "Better Together--Celebrating a Natural Community" is now open!

Friday, July 7, 2017

A Day on Big Moose Lake

Birdsong erupted from the forest and danced its way across a clear blue sky as we unloaded the canoes and prepared to launch on the Moose River in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness west of Ely, MN.

The winding, sedge-lined, black-watered channel of the Moose River is a classic scene of canoe country. Even paddling upstream, we didn’t have to work very hard to overcome the gentle flow of Big Moose Lake’s outlet. On one sweeping corner, a beaver lodge poked its prickly roof above the wetland vegetation. Numerous small dams provided excitement. We relished the few moments of charging full steam ahead that it took to get over their mostly submerged sticks. Two larger beaver dams provided the bulk of water-holding capacity. One we portaged around, the other we hauled over.

Steering a canoe around sharp corners against a current takes skill. The sternman in my canoe did a fine job. Reid Carron is a retired lawyer and avid fisherman who just happened to marry Becky Rom—the daughter of an Ely, MN, outfitter. To avoid the strongest current, Reid paddled us right along the channel’s edge, which allowed me to peek at flowers up close.

The sunny yellow blossoms of common bladderwort stood out. Similar to a snapdragon, the large, globular, lower petal angles upward, and a smaller petal fans above it. Red veins on the lower petal probably guide pollinators into the depths. These free-floating plants have no roots. Their thin leaves branch off a zig-zag stem and divide into smaller segments that look to me like a stylized drawing of a river and its tributaries.

Danger lurks among the submerged leaves. These bladderworts don’t look threatening from the surface, but theirs is the largest genus of carnivorous plants in the world. It would be foolish for a plant to eat its own pollinators, so the beautiful flowers rise above the water’s surface a few inches, and its deadly snares hide below.

Each trap, nestled among the thread-like leaves, is a bladder with a door that opens inward. The plant can pump water out of the bladder, flattening it and creating a vacuum inside. Bristles near the trapdoor look like a good feeding habitat and act to funnel prey toward their demise. When a minuscule invertebrate nudges trigger hairs near the door, the flap swings inward and sucks in both water and lunch. The door snaps shut as the bladder fills. 

Digestive enzymes and resident bacteria digest the prey, which takes anywhere from 15 minutes to two hours, depending on their size. To reset the trap, the plant uses special cells to pull nutrient-laden water into the stem. Not only does this feed the plant, it restores the vacuum that is essential for the capture of future prey.

With such a unique lifestyle, clean water with an abundance of microscopic life is essential for bladderwort.

And maintaining the clean water that is such an integral part of the Boundary Waters was an objective of this trip.

The canoe behind Reid and me was paddled by Steve Piragis, the owner of an outfitting company in Ely. He and Reid had been tapped to guide Idaho journalist Kris Millgate into the wilderness. I tagged along as a portage mule. After listening to a panel discussion on the proposed Twin Metals copper mine that would impact the Boundary Waters’ watershed, Millgate wanted to find out more.

She also wanted to capture the beauty of the Boundary Waters and to introduce her western audience to its charms. It was fun to watch her work. Steve and Reid fished (tough job!) while I paddled Kris out to an island. She hung precariously over the side of the bow, expensive camera almost skimming the waves. Then she stood behind her tripod atop a rocky knoll, squinting into the sun and wind like a warrior going into battle. We all fished for a while, having somewhat less luck with flies and lures than the bladderwort has with its bristles. Finally, we napped under noonday sun that was too bright for good photography.

As both sun and wind diminished, we prepared for the paddle out. The evening light was magical. In the stern, now, I was able to draw close enough to photograph bladderwort flowers, glowing golden against deep black water.

We’re all trying to capture something here, right? A microbe, a stunning shot, the essence of an issue, the imagination of voters, a bit of peace, or an experience to remember...The mining issue is large, and others have covered it in detail. I was just happy to spend a day on the water with people who care about it. The chorus of birdsong, the work of a beaver, an encounter with a lovely flower that needs healthy water: these things make forming my own opinion about the value of protecting their home an easy one.

Special Note: Emily’s book, Natural Connections: Exploring Northwoods Nature through Science and Your Senses is here! Order your copy at  Listen to the podcast at!

For 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new exhibit: "Better Together--Celebrating a Natural Community" is now open!

Friday, June 30, 2017

Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer

As we entered the soft mat of the fen, the starry white flowers of three-leaved false Solomon's-seal shone among puffy green clouds of sphagnum moss, and warm sunshine perfumed the breezes that wafted under my nose. I carried a camera. Kaylee wielded an insect net and backpack full of bug jars. As she began swishing the net through the tips of bog laurel and cranberry, I absent-mindedly mused “I hope we find an elfin skimmer today.”

At less than one inch long, elfin skimmers are the smallest dragonflies in North America. Just that superlative, plus the fact that they inhabit the magical spaces of bogs and fens, and have a delightful name, has endeared them to me. But I’ve only known of their existence since last July, when the naturalist and author Sparky Stensaas led a field trip for us to a nearby fen and also expressed hopes of seeing one. To be honest, although they’ve zipped around in my imagination since that day, I’ve never seen one, and I couldn’t even tell you how to identify them in the field. They’d be shimmering and fairy-like, I presumed, just like my wistful, but not exactly rational, request to the universe that we find one.

My official, stated purpose for the day was to offer assistance with plant identification and logistics at the Museum’s first BioBlitz. A bioblitz is an intense period of biological surveying in an attempt to record all the living species within a designated area. Most bioblitzes invite the public to join in the fun to learn more about biodiversity (including dragonflies with fanciful names) and better understand how to protect it.

Kaylee Faltys, the Museum’s Curator, had rounded up 13 experts and participants who were interested in exploring Sugar Bush Fen in Northeast Lake State Natural Area. We’d all doused ourselves in bug spray before taking off through the woods and onto the soft, sphagnum moss mat of the fen.

Into Kaylee’s bug jars went flies, dragonflies, butterflies, beetles, bees, grasshoppers, mosquitoes, and a single spider. Into my camera went photos of pitcher plant flowers (their petals still dangling like burgundy silk!), puffy tufts of cottongrass, the long-petaled beaks of cranberry (crane-berry), and the dainty pink shoes of lady’s slipper orchids.

The fen was a dream. We caught a tiny spring peeper in a bug jar, and admired the frog’s suction-cup toes before putting him back on the hummock from whence he came. We slogged through the shade-less, boot-grabbing sedge mat to reach the enchanted pool of liquid darkness at the center. Water lilies dotted its margins, and tiny thickets of sundew, too. Each spoon-shaped leaf bristled with tiny pink hairs, and every luminous hair sparkled with a drop of either sticky sweet nectar or deadly digestive enzymes at its tip. A few leaves were still digesting a six-legged lunch.

The graceful, nodding stems of fen sedge brushed our muck boots as we finally exited the wonderland, ready for some shade and a shower.

Back at the Museum, Kaylee’s real work began. She started by emptying out the jumbled, bug-filled jars, spreading the wings of dragonflies and butterflies so that they could dry properly, and pinning the smaller insects on white foam. With the specimens preserved, she could then turn to the task of identification. For my part, I uploaded plant photos to the iNaturalist website, and tagged them as part of our CNHM BioBlitz 2017 project, which anyone can explore.

I was at my desk, deep into computer work, when Kaylee’s voice preceded her around the corner: “We found an elfin skimmer!”

His tiny body was pinned in one corner of her white foam square. Having finally done my research, I could tell by his pale blue, pruinose (frosted like a grape), abdomen that this male had matured fully after a shiny black, 10-day adolescence. In life, he would have patrolled a small territory surrounding a single puddle in the fen’s floating mat. Kaylee probably netted him from the bristle of sedges near the fen’s open pond.

Not being a strong flyer, he would have perched—clear wings drooping forward—when not chasing off rivals. After mating with a female, he would have guarded her as she deposited eggs into his pool with dainty taps of her brightly striped abdomen. Female elfin skimmers look quite different, and their black and yellow markings are thought to imitate wasps and provide some protection from predators. Plants don’t care about warning colors, though, and the skimmers’ size makes them vulnerable to becoming mortally entangled in a sundew’s trap.

Now, this elfin skimmer is perched on a pin for perpetuity. His mortal trap was Kaylee’s net. He’s no longer able to take shimmering flights through my dreams. Looking through the microscope at his crystalline wings, frosted body, and sparkling brown eyes, I feel like I’ve been given a precious gift. And yet, by pinning down a glittering zip of imagination and making it real, I feel as though I’ve lost something, too.

Special Note: Emily’s book, Natural Connections: Exploring Northwoods Nature through Science and Your Senses is here! Order your copy at  Listen to the podcast at!

For 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new exhibit: "Better Together--Celebrating a Natural Community" is now open!

Friday, June 23, 2017

Bog Buckbean: Nothing like its name

Adults wearing hip waders and wielding nets stepped gingerly into the wetland. An ecologist had just briefed them on the importance of aquatic macroinvertebrates for studying water quality, and now it was their job to catch some critters. The public boat landing at Bark Bay Slough State Natural Area near Herbster, WI, was a gorgeous setting for this adventure.

Bark Bay Slough is a freshwater estuary where the relatively warm, sediment-laden waters of the Bark River meet the clear, icy waters of Lake Superior. The lagoon is mostly separated from the lake by a sandy baymouth bar, making it a peaceful place to study water quality. Within this unique physical setting are equally delightful plants. Mats of floating vegetation and peat soils creep in from all sides of the lagoon and support both bog and fen communities.

The students in hip waders were participants in a Wisconsin Master Naturalist Volunteer training course. For an entire week they were assigned to explore beautiful places with natural resource professionals and learn a little bit about everything. Some folks take the course purely as personal edification, but most students are planning to apply their newfound knowledge to volunteer or professional naturalist experiences.

My job, besides coordinating logistics and piping in with cool facts, was to take photos. So as a couple of students waded across a knee-deep channel to sample insects west of the landing, I followed behind with my camera held high. After pushing through the cattails and finding stable footing, I looked up.

The mat of fen vegetation spread out before me like a magic carpet, floating on water instead of air. From this carpet rose a thick bouquet of flowers. Clusters of delicate, pink blossoms drooped from the graceful, arching stems of bog rosemary. 

Thread-like arcs of fen sedge filled in between. Rising above them were the frilly white flowers of bog buckbean. Its beauty was the crowning jewel.

Despite its slightly hokey and incorrect name, bog buckbean is one of the most magnificent members of a fen community. Bogs and fens are often confused, so that part of the name is no surprise. Bogs are peaty wetlands that receive all or most of their water from precipitation rather than from runoff, groundwater or streams. They are characterized by acidic soils with few nutrients. Fens are also peaty wetlands, but they receive input from groundwater, runoff, or other sources, which decreases their acidity and increases nutrients. The water of this peatland in the Bark Bay Slough meets and mixes with water from the estuary, which makes the bog buckbean’s habitat a fen.

The “buck” part of the flower’s name may be a corruption of the name Puck, who was a clever, mischievous elf in old English folklore. According to one account, the children of Devonshire, England, used to address Puck before traveling through the forest after dark, to ask for protection.

How the character and the plant came together is still a mystery to me, but this does bring up the fact that bog buckbean is found in wetlands around the globe! From North America to northern Asia, Europe, and Japan, this beautiful flower remains the same species. It’s a small world. Also unusual is that Menyanthes trifoliata is the only flower in its genus.

One alternative name of bog buckbean is bog hop, which refers to the English use of its bitter leaves to flavor beer. Those leaves are divided into three oval leaflets, and they must have reminded someone of the shape of broad beans from their garden because the “bean” in this plant’s name refers to their shape.

It’s the magnificent flowers, though, that really steal the show. The tall, cone-shaped inflorescence holds many feathery, white, star-like blossoms. The feathery petals aren’t a simple vanity. Pollination is carried out by bumblebees and other big bees. Small insects aren’t effective pollinators, so lacy fringes on the petals protect the flower’s valuable nectar from freeloaders.

The flowers make another investment in cross-pollination as well: some plants have a long pistil (female flower part) and short stamens (pollen-bearing flower parts), and some plants have the opposite combination. If a bee gets dusted with pollen from a long stamen, that pollen won’t rub off on another flower with a long stamen. Instead, the pollen will be at the perfect height to cross-pollinate a buckbean flower with a long pistil.

Looking back at my photos, all the buckbean flowers in this fen seem to have five, short, violet-colored stamens and a tall, yellow pistil in the center. Buckbean spreads more through rhizomes than seeds, so it’s quite possible that all of these flowers are part of the same wandering plant, connected by a network of horizontal stems.

After photographing the flowers and students, I bounced a few times on the floating mat of the fen, and wandered back to the group at the landing. Naturalists with nets had caught some neat little insects. After lunch, we paddled out to the baymouth bar and walked across to Lake Superior.

Geology, ecology, botany, biology, and people: all had come together for a special day at a special place.

Special Note: Emily’s book, Natural Connections: Exploring Northwoods Nature through Science and Your Senses is here! Order your copy at  Listen to the podcast at!

For 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new exhibit: "Better Together--Celebrating a Natural Community" is now open!

Friday, June 16, 2017

Summer Blooms with Lois Nestel

On a recent mountain bike ride with a group of women, I quickly fell behind the lead group while easily staying far ahead of the beginner group. Alone in the forest on the first hot day, it was bliss. The Makwa Trail flowed gracefully through deciduous woods south of Seeley, WI, and as evening fell, I wallowed in the rich smells of the summer woods.

Riding alone allowed me to stop and smell the roses. The bright white flowers of wild strawberries and the canary yellow flowers of barren strawberry (both in the Rose Family) lined the trail. The first produces a juicy red berry, the second, despite its similar set of three toothy leaves and five-petaled flowers, only makes a few dry seeds. Trilliums, violets, starflowers, bluebead lily, and a late-blooming wood anemone also caught my eye.

Barren Strawberry along the Makwa Trail

Wild Strawberry

I’m pretty sure that Lois Nestel, the Museum’s first naturalist and director, would never have joined me on a mountain bike ride, but I know I would have loved walking attentively through the woods with her. This week, I’d like to share her description of the residents of woods and fields as summer begins to bloom. Slow down a minute with me, we’ll smell the roses, and I think you’ll find it rewarding.

Lois wrote, “Although the woodland flowers of spring are passing as increased foliage cuts off the light, there are still numbers of delightful varieties to be found. Both pink and yellow lady-slippers are blooming now as are some of the bog orchids. Many smaller shade-loving blooms may also be found if one cares to expend the extra energy to find them. Dainty gold-thread, pipsissewa, and twinflowers lift their lovely blooms only two or three inches above the forest duff. The dwarf dogwood, known as bunchberry, masses its four-petaled green and ivory flowers along banks and around old stumps, and nearby the yellow bloom of Clintonia or bluebead lily may be found.

“But from now until autumn the floral emphasis will be upon the blossoms of open areas, roadsides, fields and glades—and the variety seems endless. Drifts of color along roadsides and in meadows are more spectacular than are the more modest flowers of spring. Daisies, hawk-weed, and other composites now dominate the scene, and the yellow-flowered salsify, best known in late summer for its huge dandelion-like seed head (commonly known as goat’s beard), is one of the most interesting. It is related to the oyster plant grown in gardens.

“Perhaps the loveliest flower of the season is the wild rose, and differences in varieties and habitat allow their season to be quiet extended. While color may vary from deep pink to almost white, the typical rose fragrance varies little. Simple perfection personifies the rose.

“In damp meadows, golden alexanders spread their wheels and along the edges, in sheltered nooks, wild columbine nods its spurred bells. In drier fields and roadsides, flat-topped aromatic heads of yarrow vary from dingy white to mauve or pink. From hillside to hallow, from northern to southern exposure, great differences can be seen in the development of the floral community. In sunny, open areas some plants will already be seeding while their counterparts in cool depressions are only in bud.

“Summer’s profusion together with our modern way of life can be a disadvantage. Traveling swiftly by car, one sees sheets and belts and blurs of color…sees and yet does not see. The quantity bedazzles, the quality is not seen.

“Take time to walk, to examine the intricacies of the individual flower; look for the less obvious. It is rewarding.”

Special Note: Emily’s book, Natural Connections: Exploring Northwoods Nature through Science and Your Senses is here! Order your copy at  Listen to the podcast at!

For 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new exhibit: "Better Together--Celebrating a Natural Community" is now open!

Friday, June 9, 2017

Honeysuckle: Old Friends

I love to meet old friends when I’m on a walk in the woods. Not human friends, mind you, but plant friends. During spring and early summer, when the undergrowth isn’t too thick, I often spot the distinctive shapes of honeysuckle bushes. Northern fly honeysuckle, (Lonicera canadensis), is an almost fragile looking native shrub with smooth oval leaves that line up in pairs along the twigs.

Native Fly Honeysuckle

If you’re lucky, you might spot the honeysuckle’s pale yellow flowers dangling in their delicate pairs. Their fluted shape with a long nectar tube is a clue that hummingbirds love them. The flowers don’t last long, though, and are soon replaced by two green fruits, shaped a little bit like tiny footballs, and joined at their pointy ends. The berries ripen to a vibrant shade of red and really pop in the cool shade of the forest. Birds, especially robins and cardinals, love them.

Sometimes (too often!) the old friend I meet in the woods is more of a “frenemy,” or a plant that I have a love-hate relationship with. I grew up with Tartarian honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica) in my backyard, and spent many days gathering the round red and orange berries to use as pretend food in my playhouse. Now I know that this childhood friend can be quite invasive. A native of China, Manchuria, and Korea, it left behind its native predators when it came here, and tends to run rampant in our vacant lots and deciduous woods, creating impenetrable thickets in the worst cases. It’s joined by several other species of non-native invasive honeysuckles that all share the same invasive tendencies.

While native and non-native honeysuckles share some characteristics, it’s not hard to tell them apart. All have pairs of white, pink or yellow flowers with a nectar tube and fluted petals. All have paired leaves (“opposite arrangement” to botanists,) and all have red or orange berries. The invasive honeysuckles get much bigger and bushier, though, and some species have pointed, serrated, or fuzzy leaves. Their abundant flowers are held upright. Plus, the berries on invasive honeysuckles are round instead of football-shaped.

Non-native honeysuckle

The surest way to distinguish the honeysuckles in any season is to crack open a twig and look at the pith. The pith is the soft, spongy tissue in the center of the stem. In native honeysuckles the pith is pure and white. In non-native species the pith is either brown or hollow.

Native honeysuckles have a white pith.

Non-native honeysuckles have a hollow or brown pith in the center of their twig.

Like many invasive species, the Eurasian species of honeysuckles tend to crowd out native plants and provide a lower quality food source to native animals. As birds and mammals eat the berries and disperse the seeds, non-native honeysuckles quickly invade open woodlands, old fields, and other disturbed sites, and form a dense thicket that prevents other native plants and trees from growing. The northern fly honeysuckle is one that gets pushed out by its cousin.

With lower diversity, the wildlife cover is reduced, and cardinal nests in particular are less successful, despite the thicket. Fewer insects in the honeysuckle reduce food sources for many warblers and flycatchers. Although abundant, the berries actually contain less fat and energy than their native counterparts. When cedar waxwings eat too many red honeysuckle berries, the pigment tints their normally yellow tail tip and turns it orange. On the flip side, male cardinals who eat honeysuckle may be brighter red, even though they are less fit. Females have a harder time determining the healthiest mates.

As you pass yard after yard surrounded by Eurasian honeysuckle hedges in full bloom, it’s easy to imagine how this invader got here. It was first introduced into North America as an ornamental in 1752! Many invasives got their start in the nursery trade, either as the main attraction or a hitchhiker. This June is Wisconsin’s 13th Annual Invasive Species Awareness Month, so it’s a good time to learn more about what you can do to help.

Prevention is worth an ounce of cure, so they say, and it is definitely easier to keep the weeds out than to get rid of them once they’re here. Do a little research before you buy new plants from a nursery, and try to choose to plant native species. Use those boot brushes at trailheads to make sure that you aren’t carrying seeds from trail to trail. Clean your equipment between locations, especially if you know that you’ve just been working in a place that has invasive species. Equipment includes boats! Aquatic invasive species are a big threat to Wisconsin lakes and streams, and making sure to clean, drain, and dry all of your equipment can help stop their spread. The Wisconsin DNR website has great information and Best Management Practices for a variety of situations to make sure that we aren’t accidentally spreading a new plague.

If you discover an invasive species on your property or public land, contact Adam Haecker, Coordinator for the Northwoods Cooperative Weed Management Area (NCWMA) by calling 715-373-6167 or emailing He, or a variety of the local land management agencies, can help you set up a management plan to control the offending invader.

This June, be sure to enjoy all of the native flowers that brighten up our woods, and then protect their future by doing your part reduce the impact of invasive species.