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Beyond the beauty and seeds

Cottonwood seeds have a short life. Few seedling have emerged in our region the last 80 years because the lock and dam system delays the drop in water levels needed for proper seed germination. (Photos by  Bruce Ause)1 / 3
Sumac berries are ripening at Frontenac State Park. They generate a white sticky sap that makes delicious lemonade. 2 / 3
Snakeroot is delicate and deadly. Cows can die from consuming the plant and their milk becomes toxic. 3 / 3

Bruce Ause - columnist

As we enter into the heart of the summer and the peak of the growing season, there is a plethora of interesting native flora available for me to point out to the visitors who accompany me on my Saturday morning interpretive hikes at Frontenac State Park.

I would like to take this opportunity to share four of these common plants with you. The first being a late summer wild flower known as white snakeroot.

Many park visitors come to observe and photograph the wide variety of woodland wild flowers found here. Most of these enthusiasts visit during May before the tree canopy becomes established, cutting off important sunlight from reaching the forest floor. 

White snakeroot is one exception to that rule and blooms along the edge of the forest in mid to late summer.

Growing up in the farm country of southeastern Minnesota near Harmony, I was well aware that local dairy farmers were careful to keep their cows away from this plant while they were out in nearby pastures. Milk produced from cows that consumed white snakeroot by sticking their heads through or over the fences would be tainted and unfit to drink. It could be lethal to cows if large amounts were ingested. 

What most of the hikers don’t realize is that Abraham Lincoln’s mother died when he was only 11 years old after drinking milk tainted by this plant.

The second plant of interest is jewelweed or spotted touch-me-not. The orange or yellow blossoms hang like pendant jewels. Ripe seedpods pop and eject their seeds several feet at the slightest touch, hence their name. 

These plants have translucent and very succulent stems. The juice from the leaves and stems has been used by Native Americans for hundreds of years as a preventive and cure for poison ivy. 

Prior to coming to Red Wing, my family and I lived in the resort country on the north side of Mille Lacs Lake. I became aware of a fellow who would go out in the woods with a hand scythe and would harvest bales of this plant at this time of year. Next he would bring it home and run it through a wringer on an old-fashioned washing machine to collect the juice. From there it was bottled and sold to resorts hosting families with children who would invariably encounter poison ivy.

A frequently asked question at the park is whether the abundant sumac is poisonous.

I assure them that poison sumac grows best in very wet soil and produces white berries. As far as I know, there is no poison sumac in this area. 

During August, the two species of sumac common to this area begin to produce dark red berries. As a part of that process, a white sticky sap surrounds the berries. A favorite summer wild edible beverage from these sap-laden berries is sumac lemonade. 

Native Americans were aware that a tea made from these berries provided soothing relief from a sore throat. No doubt very similar to a concoction of lemon juice and honey a well-used home remedy.

Finally, I will mention the eastern cottonwood tree. This native and fairly common tree is one of the tallest trees in the park and along the river. 

Cottonwoods are an integral part of the river community and highly sought after by bald eagles for perching, roosting and nesting. 

Nests built high up in these trees command a great view and easy detection of any unexpected predation challenges. 

The dense leaf cover provides wonderful protection from the hot sun during a three-month nest occupation by the dark plumaged eaglets.

Most of us who live along the river are aware that around mid-June the air is full of the white seeds being carried by the wind. The timing of that event has evolved over thousands of years. Cottonwood seeds are viable for a very short period of time, usually a week or two. 

To germinate and survive, they must find newly exposed soil or beach sand. This timing has coincided with the end of the spring floods and drop in river levels.

Unfortunately since the construction of the lock and dams along the Mississippi River, the drop in water levels is greatly delayed and does not allow for proper seed dispersal and survival. 

A recent study on a 72-mile stretch of the Mississippi River National Recreation Area in the metro revealed a dramatic lack of young cottonwood trees. Trees located in the survey were most likely growing before the 1930s. If you look closely, you will notice a similar situation along the river in the Red Wing area.