Wisconsin Plant Life

Once great forests, rising 65 to 125 feet above the mold, covered most of what is now Wisconsin; only in the southern and western hilly sections were there tracts of open prairie. Lakes and streams were plentiful in the northern and eastern forest regions; the southwestern portion, which the glaciers had missed, presented a diverse landscape of green-topped crags, rich valleys, and flower-strewn prairies. Today, despite the work of lumbermen and farmers, much of the native flora remains; the only surviving stands of virgin timber are preserved in State, national, and county forests or in a few privately owned tracts.

In general the northern part of the State held a coniferous type of forest. On its best soils were pure stands of hardwood or mixed forests of conifers and hardwoods. Norway pine grew where the soil was sandy or gravelly, and the sandy barrens of the north were also favorable to the jack pine. Farther south were forests of deciduous trees. Bogs with sphagnum and heath undergrowth and tamarack and spruce stands lay in the low areas throughout the State.

After 1870 lumbering became an important industry and the forests of the north began to disappear. Here the white pine was most plentiful. Other evergreens -- Norway pine, jack pine, white spruce, tamarack, balsam, fir, and white cedar -- were interspersed with deciduous species such as the paper birch, aspen, red and burr oak, black and white ash, and the yellow birch. On richer soils throughout this area a shrub stage of red raspberry, blackberry, pin cherry, and sumac followed in the wake of fires and lumbering; aspen and white birch saplings sprang up in some sections. The sandy regions of the northern and central parts of the State now grow only jack pine, sweet fern, bracken fern, blueberries, and June berries.

The many shrubby plants replacing the ruined forests of the north are not without beauty. In the thinned woods and along old fencerows grow beaked hazel, chokecherry, northern gooseberry, wild black currant, and bush honeysuckle. In winter the shiny, leathery leaves of the pipsissewa and the delicate needles of the yew and juniper are green beneath the snow.

When it is warmer, even before the snow has disappeared, the pink trailing arbutus blossoms over rocks and mulchy forest floors. The bogs, low meadows, and wet woods of the north support dwarf birch, wintergreen, bog rosemary, mountain fly honeysuckle, red-berried elder, cranberry, willow, and red osier dogwood.

Aside from the many kinds of mushrooms, grasses, sedges, and rushes, the northern coniferous area shelters various herbaceous plants. The commonest ferns are the brake, shield fern, and beech fern. One of the most interesting of the mosses is the club moss or ground pine, the spores of which are sometimes gathered and marketed as Lycopodium powder, a modern representative of a family that flourished in the coal-forming era. Early in the spring the hepatica puts forth a small, enamel-like blossom, varying from bluish-lavender to pink; then come the straw-colored Clintonia and the dwarf Solomon's seal, a mass of white flowerets. Ladyslippers, including the yellow and pink moccasin, grow widely, as do the related rein orchis and saprophytic coral root. In bogs and swamps are the pitcher plant, whose streaked purple leaves trap insects for nourishment, and the sundew, which also captures insects, but with the glue-tipped tentacles on its leaves. The fragrant pink twin-flower and the waxy, white, bell-shaped flowers of the shinleaf are found in late spring. In the fall evergreens and mixed broadleafs, turning yellow, orange, red, and purple, blend with goldenrod, purple asters, and scarlet swamp maple-gleam.

Near Bailey's Harbor lies a 400-acre tract of ridges and valleys with a wealth of plant varieties typical of northern Wisconsin. Here are found 30 of Wisconsin's 45 species of native orchids, the bird's-eye primrose and fringed gentian, rare elsewhere in the State, and all but two of the State's evergreens.

Common to all or most of the State are such trees as red oak, wild plum, quaking aspen, black willow, cottonwood, hornbeam, and hickory, and various bushes such as raspberry, gooseberry, and currant. Many herbaceous plants are likewise common, among them the white water lily, wild rose, and violet. The violet, of which Wisconsin has at least 20 species, was selected as the State flower by the vote of school children on Arbor Day of 1909. No particular species was chosen, but probably the children had in mind either the common early blue violet or the pale blue bird's-foot violet. Other common species are the yellow, the arrow-leaved, and the small fragrant white violet. The white water lily blooms in early summer in many Wisconsin lakes and rivers; and the American lotus, once in danger of extinction, has lately become abundant in lakes and in the sloughs of the Mississippi.

Originally the southern part of the State was covered with forests consisting mostly of hard maple, slippery elm, beech, white elm, burr oak, red oak, and ironwood. Less common were aspen, basswood, black cherry, green ash, hackberry, hickory, and butternut. Along the Mississippi and the lower Wisconsin Rivers a few trees characteristic of the Kentucky-Tennessee forest area reached their northern limit -- the honey locust, chinquapin oak, and black maple; others, such as black oak, shell bark hickory, black walnut, and wild crabapple, also common in this forest area, extend farther up the State. Characteristic shrubs were the prickly and Missouri gooseberries, the thornapple, chokecherry, June berry, prickly ash, staghorn sumac, alternate-leaved dogwood, roundleaved dogwood, poison sumac, nannyberry, and honeysuckle; there were also a few climbers -- the bittersweet, wild grapevine, Virginia creeper, and moonseed.

The southern part of Wisconsin is made up of three distinct regions: the southwestern uplands, the central sandy plain, and the southeastern marshes, woodlands and prairies.

At the northwest end of the deep-cut southwestern plateau, the valley bottoms and narrow ridges were originally covered with a deciduous forest. On the prairies of the broad upland levels Pasque flowers, growing by the millions, spangled the wheat grass, beard grass, and buffalo grass. Later each spring came a profusion of rich blue bird'sfoot violets, and white and pink shooting stars blossomed in mid-May. Though most of the prairie vegetation has been destroyed by cultivation and grazing animals, the steeper southern slopes and railway right-ofways are still full. Among the remaining prairie plants, besides a wide variety of grasses, are the grass-like herbs called blue-eyed and yellow star grass and the herbs curiously named for fruit trees -- ground plum, ground cherry, and prairie apple. A few plants, mostly lower forms such as mosses, are peculiar to this region and the central sand country, both of which were not glaciated, while other plants such as leatherleaf and small cranberry grow everywhere else in the State but in these two regions.

Northeast of the region of broad highland prairies and narrow wooded valleys, in the central part of the State, is an extensive, ovalshaped terrain with mesa-like bluffs and characteristic vegetation. Originally this area, where bogs and marshes are now abundant, was covered by forests of white pine, jack pine, jack oak, and red pine. Now only some of the tamarack and spruce bogs of the undrained lowlands, and the meadows of sedges and rushes, retain their original vegetation; the remainder of the area consists of cutover land grown to jack pine and aspen. Bogs that have been drained and burned are largely covered with aspen and with thickets of blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries.

Conspicuous plants of the marshy areas are the sedges, bulrushes and cat-tails, the swamp milkweed with its rose-purple flowers, the blue iris, the arrowhead, and various willows. In the bogs and on the sandstone ledges are labrador tea and blueberry; huckleberry and bearberry thrive on the rocky banks and bluffs. In May the sandy open woods and fields are dotted with blue spiked lupine and orange hoary puccoon.

The southeastern part, by far the most fertile in the southern half of the State, was originally covered by deciduous trees, except for scattered bogs and marshes and for prairie openings throughout the south. Where the soil was boggy, tamarack was the most common tree. In the marshes and sloughs the usual reeds, sedges, rushes, and cat-tails mingle with a variety of moisture-loving plants -- the arrowhead, water crowfoot, water persicaria, iris, water cress, swamp milkweed, water hemlock, water parsnip, tufted loosestrife, marsh marigold, and sticktight. The forest edges along the oak openings contained shrubs and small trees such as the dogwood, bladder nut, raspberry, bittersweet, hawthorn, and hazel.

In spring the woodlands throughout the south have large-flowered trilliums, fawn lilies, spring beauties, and a few large yellow ladyslippers. Though much of the undergrowth has died out, many of the more striking species of herbaceous plants remain.

In the rich soil of densely shaded slopes grow Virginia grapefern, interrupted fern, maidenhair fern. Among the first flowers to appear are the pink and lavender hepatica, the milk-white bloodroot, and the marsh marigold. Often the waxy-white golden-centered trillium and purple-striped Jack-in-the-pulpit grow here, and the showy, ladyslipper, with purple hood arched over its white spur-like lip. Bellwort, Dutchman's breeches, violet and purplish-brown ginger blossom in early May. Phlox and Jacob's ladder form patches of pale lilac or blue, and the mitrewort extends its spike of flowerets. Spring beauties, which close when a cloud obscures the sun, make solid sheets of pink in the hardwood copses before the trees put forth leaves. In low-lying wooded lands and in ravines among the ostrich fern, shield fern, lady fern, and green dragon, the fawn lily expands large white flowers. The water leaf also grows here, and the jewelweed, with pendant orange and yellow flowers to attract the humming bird. More common in the upland woods are the yellow ladyslipper and the rattlesnake plantain -- Wisconsin's only orchid with variegated leaves -- the rein orchis, and the shinleaf. The red-flowered columbine grows in rocky places; bees, growing impatient, often cut into its nectar cup from below, leaving the task of pollination to the ruby-throated humming bird.

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