Friends of the Wildflower Garden

A web of present and past events

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These short articles are written to highlight connections of the plants, history and lore of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden with different time frames or outside connections. A web of intersections.

Miss the snow in Wirth Park? Consider the alternative of 1949 and 2018 in our first article. Next is a short life story of one of the most common North American song birds - The Redwing. Did Eloise make an identification mistake when she planted Whitlow Grass 100 years ago? Maybe. We end with what was once a popular shade tree, but now prohibited.

This Month

Nostalgia: Snow in April


The life of a Redwing


Eloise plants - what?


The Norway Maple


Are you missing snow this year in Wirth Park?

Maybe we will see it yet. April is notorious for snow. We illustrate a pair nostalgic photos of the park, Birch Pond in particular, one following the 9.3 inch snowfall over two days 75 years ago and one from 2018 when similar weather occurred.

Below: Birch Pond on April 14 1949. Photo Martha Crone.

Birch Pond in snow 1949

In the 1940s and 1950s Martha Crone opened the Garden on April 1 whether visitors could get there or not. She noted in her log: “April 1: opened garden after 10 inch snowfall of 2 days ago. Appearance of midwinter, nothing out." April 10, “First snow trilliums are out, also skunk cabbage in bloom.” April 14, “Heavy snow storm of 9-1/2” of snow, again we are in midwinter. Snow Trilliums buried under."

In 2018 the are had late March snows, 7.6 inches over April 2 -3 for the 4th largest single day April snowfall in Minneapolis weather history as of 2019. More heavy snow on 13th, 14th and 15th. 25.2 inches for the month by April 15 - all time record for April. Garden opened May 1 - latest date ever.

Birch Pond in snow 2018

Photo above: Similar view on April 5, 2018 following a 8 inch snowfall on April 2 & 3. Photo G D Bebeau.

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The life of a Redwing

Many birds have an interesting story line and are written about ad-infinitum, but with an estimated population size of 180,000,000 and range spanning almost all of inhabited North America our native Redwing Blackbird has interested a minority of researchers, but not so the naturalists.

This is the sound we longed for, dreamed about, looked forward to in the darkest days of winter. Rising and subsiding, becoming a storm of mingled voices, then ebbing away, it comes from the treetops along the brook. It is an excited sound, a festive, holiday sound. Like the torrents of spring, it is a rushing, liquid sound that here antedates the spring. It is the great chorus of the first of the homecoming flocks of the redwings. Edwin Way Teale.

Redwings are a member of the Icteridae family, which includes Cowbirds, Orioles, Grackles, Meadowlarks and Bobolinks, to name some. Unlike many songbird species, the Redwing population seems to holding its own. Population estimates in the 1970s are not much different from todays estimates.

Below: Male Redwing Blackbird on perch. Photo - ADJ82 CC-BY-SA 4.0

Redwing on perch
Redwing female
Female Redwing. Photo - Mdf.

Some notes on Redwings:
They all sing. The females are one of the few female songbirds to do so. The sexual displays of the mature males red epaulets are what give the common name, while juveniles have more subdued orangey colors and females may have some light wing color.

The males return in spring, 2 to 3 weeks before the females, staking out their territory in the cattail marshes and their own perching branch, consuming their days, flying out regularly to inspect the boundaries of their domain. When marshes are too crowded, upland sites are chosen. Aggressors within the territory are swiftly dealt with. Bill-tilting (upward raised head) is a display used by both male and females in aggressive encounters defending territory. And territory they do have. By the time the females arrive, territory boundaries have been fought over and adjusted, particularly in marshes, until there is no unclaimed space and then each male has to wait for an approaching female - the sex that is particularly choosy.

Redwing driving off Osprey
Redwing driving off an Osprey from its territory. Photo - Preserved Killick CC BY-SA 4.0

Redwings are not monogamous. The returning female may find a new mate just as easily as finding last year’s mate. Some have 2 broods per season, even 3 have been noted, and broods with different mates is not unusual. Polygyny occurs because there are more breeding females than males. First year redwing males usually do not breed whereas first year females can.

The female builds the nest, a soft-lined pouch attached to a cattail, or if in the upland, to a shrub stem or a sturdy weed. During courtship males go through a symbolic nest building ritual but never actually do anything. Nests are never reused. Hatched young remain in the nest of nine to eleven days, then off around the marsh, then in two weeks off the uplands where they flock together with the females. Males, now bachelors, form their own groups.

The birds recognize their neighbors. Flight across neighboring territories to reach uplands is tolerated, but strangers are warded off. Certain other bird species are given minor tolerance but Grackles and Marsh Wrens are vigorously pursued.

Redwing nest
A redwing next attached to a sturdy plant stem in an upland. Photo by Makuabob under CC SA-BY 3.0

Molting occurs in August and September prior to migration. Young ones do a complete molt. Now comes serious flocking time, and with the decline of insects in the fall, Redwings engage in serious crop foraging, such that crop damage was so extensive in the 1800’s that shooting parties were common and as far back as colonial times control measures were taken. It was a difficult assignment to convince a crop owner that the insects the birds removed during the growing season, was compensation for any fall damage.

During migration to the southern states of the SE U.S., the Mississippi Flyway is the flyway most heavily used by Redwings. In the reverse of spring, the males leave a few weeks before the females and the juveniles. Then the marshes and uplands of the northern states are quiet once again.

A good research book on Redwings was published by Smithsonian in 1984 titled Redwings by Robert Nero.

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Some Draba for the Wildflower Garden!!

Eloise Butler’s emotional feeling was high when she entered into her garden log “1 clump of Draba verna!!” on April 29, 1924.

So, what is this plant with a name that sounds like a Pentagon acronym. Why did she plant it and what was it she planted? Where do you find it? Could it be a case of mistaken identity?

Study the photos of the flowers and you may recognize the design as one of the Mustard family - a family known for spreaders and aggressors. That’s what she said she planted - Draba verna, known in English as European Whitlow Grass. A real pest if it gets into turf. “European” - meaning its an import. You know what some imported plants do, particularly in this family - they tend to run amuck - think Garlic Mustard, or Yellow Rocket or Black Mustard - all in that lovely mustard family, the Brassicaceae. Draba is a large genus with about 380 species in the world and 121 listed by Flora of North America.

Draba verna
Draba verna. Not native. Note the deeply notched petals, making it appear like 8 petals. Photo Alex Lockton CC By-SA 4.0
Draba reptans
Draba reptans. The Minnesota native. Note the lack of a deep notch on the petals. Photo Marcie O'Connor.

Draba verna is not a plant found in Minnesota, never been collected in Hennepin County since records were begun in the 1870s yet she said she dug it up at Minnehaha, meaning the falls, the creek, the park by that name. It is found in the east coast states where Eloise grew up and perhaps she confused it with our native Draba reptans, Carolina Whitlow Grass, which is also an annual and has the same white flowers. But Eloise was quite the expert on plant identification, so why should she have flubbed this one? D. verna has 4 white petals that are rounded at the top with a deep notch. She could see that unless it was not in flower. One way for it to be at Minnehaha was that it came as an impurity in a seed mixture. That was a common means 100 years ago for invasive plants to spread around the country.

Then again, she may have flubbed the identification. There are five of the genus native to Minnesota, widely scattered in just a few spots per county and of the five, Draba reptans is the only one found in Hennepin County. It blooms in April and early May. Both species are around 5 inches high when blooming. Cook and Lake Counties are the best bet for seeing the other Minnesota species - all 4 are up there. D. reptans has 4 white petals that are rounded but the notch is slight or not there. We do not know the answer today. 

Draba aizoides
Draba aizoides, planted by Martha Crone in 1948. Photo Jerzy Opida CC BY-SA 4.0

Whichever it was that she planted it was another Eloise Butler experiment - add whatever plant you like to the Garden and see if it will grow there. She made no record of planting any of the other Minnesota Draba species and we don’t know if the plant survived very long. Her successor, Martha Crone made no record of it, but Martha made a similar planting of an import, this time with Draba aizoides, European Yellow Whitlow Grass, in 1948. Again, why not try for a native species? This one survived a few years as she listed it on her 1951 census, but no Draba has existed in the Garden in recent decades.

You should not plant the species D. verna, chose a native.

Below: A stand of Draba verna, European Whitlow Grass. The species Eloise Butler said she planted in 1924. Photo Alex Lockton CC BY-SA 4.0

Draba verna clump

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The Norway Maple

Norway Maple full tree image

Our previous article ended with “You should not plant this species." Let’s look at another you should not plant, but this one you will find in many places around the metro area.

Some years ago one of the popular nursery trees for landscape use was the Norway Maple, Acer platanoides. It was popular because it grew fast and produced a dense canopy for shade. Over 100 cultivars were developed for the trade including the popular purple leaved, red flowered variety known as Crimson King, (var. schwedleri). It was however, another lesson not learned about using a European species in a non-native area. The tree’s dense canopy hinders any other plants to grow under it and the numerous seedings are quick growing and shade tolerant.

All those wonderful characteristics allowed it spread from landscape plantings into the wild to the entire NE section of North America, south into Tennessee and North Carolina, with Minnesota of the western edge of its current range. It is now listed on the MN DNR’s non-native terrestrial invasive plant list, so it is not sold in its pure form any longer, nor is it listed any longer on the North American Champion Tree list.

In Europe, it is the most widespread native maple, and yes, it does grow in Norway, but only the southern tip.

Norway Maple leaf
Norway Maple leaves resemble the Sugar Maple Leaf but they are wider than long, with a milky sap.
Norway maple samaras
The samaras of Norway Maple are paired with an almost 180 degree separation, widest of any maple in the area.

There is a large specimen in the Wildflower Garden, planted by Martha Crone in 1948. The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum has a group of them in their maple collection. To recognize: It looks similar to the sugar maple, but the leaves are larger, wider than long and have a milky sap. The pistil of the female flower has an unusual pair of broad wings, unlike other maples. The samaras are paired as with many maples but they spread apart almost 180 degrees, the largest spread of any maple growing in our area.

Our fact sheet about the Norway Maple at this link. All Norway Maple photos - G D Bebeau.

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Photo Note

Photos that are credited with a "CC " caption are used under Creative Commons license for educational purposes. The letters and numbers, such as "CC BY-SA 3.0" refer to the license type. These photos may be used by others only for free educational purposes so long as credit is given to the original author whose name precedes the license type. You may learn all about the requirements on the Creative Commons webpage.

Previous articles

February 2024 - Another decrease in winter monarchs

February 2024 - The last days of the Great Medicine Spring

February 2024 - Eloise Butler and early attempts to protect wildflowers

February 2024 - 1974 - the end of peaceful winters in South Wirth

February 2024 - Pussy Willow now showing signs of spring

January 2024 - 100 Years of Bird Banding

January 2024 - The Dutchman's Pipe

January 2024 - A re-discovered area in Wirth Park

January 2024 - New Winter Activities with Garden Naturalists.

December 2023 Curiosity About a Plant Name

December 2023 Are Honeycombs as Perfect as They Look?

December 2023 Why do Icicles Have Their Shape?

December 2023 Eloise's Issues with White Oaks

December 2023 Monarch Threatened with Fiery Death

All selections published in 2024

All selections published in 2023

All selections published in 2022

Selections published in 2021

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