Hairy cap moss (Polytrichum sp.)
Photo by Mark Nupen
Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens)
Photo by Mark Nupen
Lichen (Caldonia Sp.)

The Namekagon Barrens are dry and sandy, and that dictates what plants thrive there. Using fire as the main tool, wildlife specialists try to keep the barrens in what is essentially the early stage of forest succession. Trees are not allowed to grow to great height so they don’t crowd or shade out the plants that are essential for sharp-tailed grouse habitat. Land dominated by scrub oak is considered oak barrens; where jack pine dominate the land is said to be pine barrens. Both are present in the Namekagon Barrens Wildlife Area.

We are fortunate to have lists of nearly 200 plants species found in the Namekagon Barrens Wildlife Area compiled by botanist Paul Hlina.

It should go without saying that digging up flowers and other plants on the state wildlife area is not appropriate. Regardless of what may seem an abundance in one season, all the plants are needed for seeds for the future, and to support the wildlife (including insects) that depend on the native plant species. However, invasive plants are observed, please let the Friends group or the DNR property manager know about the location and extent.

Oaks. Two species of oak trees grow on the barrens. Hill’s oak (Quercus ellipsoidalis) , also known as northern pin oak, especially when it grows taller, is the one with pointy leaves. Bur oaks (Quercus macrocarpa) have more rounded leaves. In both cases, the tree grows from the roots after being “top-killed” by fire. This means that the three- to five-foot-tall trees can have very substantial root systems and can be many decades old. The term “scrub oak” is often used when people talk about the short trees on the barrens but that is not a specific species in this part of the country. Oak trees, of course, produce acorns, an important food source for grouse and other wildlife.

Hill’s Oak
Photo by Mark Nupen
Bur Oak
Photo by Mark Nupen

Pines. This region is famous for its white pines (Pinus strobus). But on the barrens, jack pine (Pinus banksiana) is king, providing the structure for grouse, sandpipers and other birds to perch on and hide in. A hot fire kills jack pines. But it also releases millions of jack pine seeds by causing the tight cones to open. So a given area will have many pines all about the same age – dating from the most recent fire. There are a few red pines (Pinus resinosa) on the barrens. They have longer needles and can grow taller than jack pines. A barrens landscape that never burns would eventually become a mature forest of red pines that shade out the jack pines. Jackpine cone photo by Dave Peters

Shrubs. The most common low, woody brush seen on the barrens are hazelnuts (Corylus americana) and prairie willow (Salix humilis). Hazelnuts produce nuts, often in twos and threes, that are food for wildlife and also can be picked, husked, dried, shelled and eaten by humans. Unlike all the other, water-loving, willows in the world, the prairie willow is typically found in dry areas like the barrens. It grows in clumps, sending spears up several feet and they often are recognizable by the midge galls that grow on them. They can fool you into thinking they’re some kind of cone or flower.

Photo by Mark Nupen
Prairie willow in early spring
Photo by Kathy Bartilson

Other common bushes on the barrens are New Jersey tea (Ceanothus herbaceous), serviceberries (Amelanchier spicata) and sand cherries (Prunus pumila). New Jersey tea typically is only two feet tall or less, also growing in clumps, and sending out bunches of white blossoms in spring. Serviceberries are another white, spring-flowering bush. Their blue pie-ready berries are also known as Juneberries. Sand cherries are related to chokecherries and have white spring blossoms and dark, sour, pit-filled fruits.

Low bushes. Blueberries (Vaccinium angustifolium) and sweet fern (Comptonia peregrine) provide much of the character of the barrens. Both plants are less than two feet tall, and they grow in patches after fire has come through, thriving in low-nutrient, sandy soil that discourages competitors.

Wild Blueberries
Sweet fern

Wild blueberries are perhaps the most beloved plant on the barrens and they have provided food for Native Americans for generations. It was to encourage their growth that American Indians set fires in the barrens, and later settlers picked them as a commercial crop. They grow well in poor soil because they rely on mycorrhizal fungi in the ground to bring them moisture and nutrients from a wider area than their roots can reach. They in turn supply sugars to the fungi. For more on blueberries, click this link: Plants – blueberries.

Sweet fern gives the barrens their fragrance on a warm summer day. Its saw-tooth leaves are distinctive, but it’s not a fern. It is a species of bayberry, which often are very aromatic. Like a legume, it develops nodules on its roots that fix nitrogen in the soil.

Two other low-to-the-ground bushes are the bearberry (Arcostaphylose uva-ursi) and wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens). Bearberries have pink and white bell-like flowers in spring and bright red berries that standout from the dark leaves that grow in a low mat. They are a remnant of glacial times, tending to grow more in northern barrens than farther south. Wintergreen, whose leaves are evergreen, blooms a little later but also generates red berries. It has been used as a flavoring source.

Wildflowers. Dozens of colorful flowers (“forbs” to botanists) grace the barrens from spring to fall. The blooming starts with the low, pale pasqueflower in April and marches through yellow hoary puccoons, purple phlox and birdfoot violets, orange butterfly flower, bee-attracting bergamot, spiky blazing star and a late-summer and autumn show of yellow sunflowers and goldenrod and purple asters. Showiest of them all is the wood lily, a large deep-orange flower often growing singly here and there across the barrens starting in June.

To see more barrens wildflowers, including photos and Latin names, click this link: Plants – wildflowers.
Prairie lily photo by Vern Drake

Grasses. The barrens are not the same as grasslands because they feature short trees and brush, but many grasses thrive here. In spring you see Kalm’s brome (Bromus kalmii), with its stems drooping to one side, and the appropriately named June grass (Koelaria macrantha). Then later big bluestem, little bluestem, switchgrass and Indian grass appear.

Sedges. Many plants that appear to be grasses are actually sedges, which tend to have triangular blades. Most common on the dry uplands of the barrens is Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pensylvanica), but many others grow both in the dry areas and in the wet, boggy area,s especially on the South Unit of the wildlife area.

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The bog. The barrens are mostly dry and sandy brushland. But on the South Unit, some 100 feet below the ridges is open-water bog terrain. You find a whole different set of plants — sphagnum moss, bog rosemary, bog laurel, wild cranberries and insect-eating plants like pitcher plants and sundew. Surrounding the bog, with their roots in or close to open water, are spruce trees and tamaracks.
At right, Gary Dunsmoor leads a field hike in the Namekagon Barrens bog.

Invasive species. Knapweed and leafy spurge are the two most common flowers seen on the barrens that have been brought in and are considered undesirable because they can crowd out native plants.

Dave Peters. Thanks to Paul Hlina and to the Minnesota Wildflowers website.