There’s a big difference between an urban yard and a forest, but within that continuum exists a neat little subset of small plots between 1 and 20 acres known as backyard woodlands. These small parcels serve a vital role as the interface between urban and wild areas, but they can also present some real challenges to ecosystems due to the impacts of management differences and habitat fragmentation. Those challenges can feel overwhelming, but there’s hope! Every backyard woodland steward who works to keep or reintroduce native vegetation helps mitigate climate change, combat biodiversity loss, provide habitat and strengthen the health of our forests. So where should you start?
Updating our recommendations
New research in forest management, especially around climate change and invasive species impacts, has prompted us to revisit and update our recommendations for tree selection. These updated regional lists will include tree species that are likely to thrive in Minnesota’s future climate. For backyard woodland owners, we are also including understory plant recommendations to support your rewilding efforts.
While those lists are in development, we couldn’t wait to give you a sneak peek at what you can expect. Here are some understory plant recommendations for backyard woodlands in East Central Minnesota — marked as area 7 on the map. In our next post we'll share our list of recommended trees for the same region.
The 23 plants on this list all come from the Field Guide to the Native Plant Communities of Minnesota by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR). All recommended species on this list meet the following criteria:
- Native to Minnesota or nearby in the Eastern Deciduous Forest.
- Climate resilient plants, well-suited for the area’s projected climate.
- Beneficial to wildlife, specifically charismatic microfauna — the tiny ecological ambassadors that make forests fun, such as butterflies, bees, fireflies, birds, and bats.
Recommended understory plants for East Central Minnesota
|Common name||Scientific name||Plant type||Height||Soil requirements||Light requirements|
|Virginia creeper||Parthenocissus quinquefolia||Vine||90'||Average to moist||Part sun, Shade|
|Wild grape||Vitis riparia||Vine||45'||Adaptable||Full sun|
|Gray dogwood||Cornus racemosa||Shrub||12'||Prefers evenly-moist||Full sun, Part sun|
|American hazel||Corylus americana||Shrub||8'||Prefers evenly-moist||Full sun, Part sun|
|Prickly gooseberry||Ribes cynosbati||Shrub||6'||Average to moist||Part sun|
|Beggarticks||Bidens spp.||Herbaceous Plant||8-80"||Wet, Medium-Wet||Full sun, Part sun|
|Rice Cutgrass||Leersia oryzoides||Herbaceous Plant||48"||Wet, Medium-Wet||Full, partial|
|False nettle||Boehmeria cylindrica||Herbaceous Plant||36"||Medium-Wet, Medium||Partial|
|Zigzag goldenrod||Solidago flexicaulis||Herbaceous Plant||36"||Medium-Wet, Medium, Medium-Dry||Full sun, Part sun|
|Wood nettle||Laportea canadensis||Herbaceous Plant||30"||Wet, Medium-Wet||Part shade, shade|
|Ontario aster||Symphyotrichum ontarionis||Herbaceous Plant||30"||average to moist soil||part shade, sun|
|Blue cohosh||Caulophyllum thalictroides||Herbaceous Plant||24"||Medium-Wet, Medium||Full shade, Part shade|
|Pointed-leaved tick trefoil||Desmodium glutinosum||Herbaceous Plant||24"||Medium, Medium-Dry||Partial, Shade|
|Wild geranium||Geranium maculatum||Herbaceous Plant||24"||Medium, Medium-Dry||Full sun, Part sun, Shade|
|Clayton’s sweet cicely||Osmorhiza claytonii||Herbaceous Plant||24"||Medium-Wet, Medium, Medium-Dry||Shade|
|Mad dog skullcap||Scutellaria lateriflora||Herbaceous Plant||24"||Wet, Medium-Wet||Full sun, partial sun|
|Large-flowered bellwort||Uvularia grandiflora||Herbaceous Plant||16"||Prefers alkaline, Prefers evenly-moist, Prefers loam, Prefers well-drained||Full sun, Part shade, Part sun|
|Cattail sedge||Carex typhina||Herbaceous Plant||12"||Wet, Medium-Wet||Partial, Shade|
|Dutchman’s breeches||Dicentra cucullaria||Herbaceous Plant||12"||Medium-Wet, Medium||Shade|
|Dwarf clearweed||Pilea pumila||Herbaceous Plant||12"||Wet, Medium-Wet||part shade, shade|
|Rugulose||Viola canadensis||Herbaceous Plant||12"||dry to average moisture||part shade, shade|
|Bloodroot||Sanguinaria canadensis||Herbaceous Plant||8"||Medium-Wet, Medium, Medium-Dry||Full shade, Full sun, Part shade, Part sun|
|Yellow violet||Viola pubescens||Herbaceous Plant||6"||Medium-Wet, Medium||Partial|
What's up with those oddballs?
You may notice a few unexpected species on this list. Some of these have defenses against herbivores like prickles and stings, such as the aptly named prickly gooseberry and wood nettle. These plants may be poor choices to encourage near where children or pets might play, and you certainly won’t find them at your local nursery. But they’re likely to do well in our changing climate and are wildlife-friendly, so you might consider leaving these native plants if you come across them in your woods.
Other plants on the list that may raise eyebrows are yellow violet and zigzag goldenrod, which some consider weedy. The definition of weed may be worth a post of its own, but simply-put, weeds are plants in places you don’t want them. If these native plants are growing in places intended to be rewilded, they may be exactly where you’d want them.
It’s also worth noting that plants doing well are more likely to be climate resilient. So those native plants that are thriving should be worth consideration, even if they might be considered a weed in a different context. As we get a little further down the road with this project we intend to provide more insight on what makes each plant unique and worth considering for retention, transplantation or addition to your backyard woods.