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Rewilding with native plants in the Twin Cities metro area

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. 

Map of woodlands of Minnesota, courtesy of Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

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 the Anoka Sand Plain, Big Woods, and St. Paul-Baldwin Plains and Moraines ecoregions — 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 plants for the Anoka Sand Plain, Big Woods, and St. Paul-Baldwin Plains and Moraines

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.

Authors: Angela Gupta, Extension forestry educator, and Emily Dombeck, Extension forestry program coordinator

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