Sunday, June 21, 2015

Northern Minnesota Wildflowers - Colorful Summer Invaders

It's late spring or early summer in northern Minnesota, wildflower season. Roadside and forest meadows burst forth in early June, heralding the short growing season. It's a vibrant explosion of color, where some of the most prominent blooms are expatriates. We humans are not the only world travellers. Duluth, on Lake Superior, is the natural base from which to set out and appreciate the display. The great port on the greatest of lakes was also the entry point for these beautiful invaders.

Some, like Queen Anne's lace (Daucus carota) and common lilac (Syringa vulgaris), are widely regarded as naturalized and generally don't pose a threat to native species. Queen Anne's lace, the ancestor of cultivated carrots, has an edible root (when young) but can easily be confused with poisonous hemlock (so I won't show a picture of it, lest I court Murphy's Law).

The lilac is so common in domestic gardens throughout North America, it's easy to forget this non-aggressive immigrant originated in the Balkans.

Others, like the orange hawkweed (Hieracium aurantiacum), are highly invasive. Non-native plants were typically imported for aesthetic reasons or some value to humans, usually to the detriment of the native populations. While much may be lost, isn't it in the nature of our species to modify the environment? Homo sapiens is an agent of inexorable change, which will come sooner or later to a world that's never been static. How similar it is to the age-long clash between new and indigenous cultures. Will some unexpected beauty yet come out of it? It's an interesting philosophical question. Yet, while I admire the beauty of what is, I wonder what was lost.

The Glaucus King-devil (Hieracium piloselloides) is a yellow variety in the European hawkweed family that often grows alongside its orange cousin. It's another import; conservationists might consider King-devil an appropriate name..

Another common roadside flower is the large-leaved lupine (Lupinus polyphyllus), which is in fact native to the western United States. It was intentionally planted in gardens and along roadsides along the north shore of Lake Superior. The pea-shaped petals are typically a vibrant indigo or violet, but pink and white are also common. One of the most beautiful displays--or is it an infestation--is immediately adjacent  to an "adult" shop just outside of the city. Apparently, porn is beneficial for the growth of non-native flowers. Who knows what they are fertilized with?!

The ox-eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare) is another European import. How many people assume such common flowers to be native? As with the lilac, perhaps the secret is with the suffix of its latin name, vulgare (common). These flowers are so common it's natural to think they have been part of the environment from time immemorial.

Tall buttercup (Ranunculus acris). There are approximately 15 native buttercup species in Minnesota. This common immigrant isn't one of them.

Together, the mix of flowers can make for a spectacular display of color. The immigrants tend to like each other's company.

E pluribus unum.

Some non-native plants have colonized other environments, such as streambanks. One such immigrant is the Forget-me-not (genus Mysotis).

There are, of course still many beautiful examples of native flowers, such as the harlequin blueflag (iris), Iris versicolor, and the prickly wild rose (Rosa acicularis). Some, like the wild strawberry (Fragraria virginiana), are nature's bounty. Where people are, there are the invasive species. To see the endemic wildflowers, one has to get off the beaten path, which happily is never more than a stone's throw away in the Northland.

Harlequin blueflag.

Prickly wild rose.

Canada anemone (Anemone canadensis).

A colony of bunchberry (Cornus canadensis)in flower.

If you live on the other side of the world and can't make it here, the Western Australian wildflower season begins in only a couple short months (August-September). The Australian continent is another place that's seen the conflict of indigenous and exotic species and cultures. Meanwhile, whether you are in North America or Europe today, the spread of exotic species means there is much likeness in a change of scenery.