Flora Trivia


Head to the shallow waters of local lakes, ponds and streams and you’re sure to spot the spiky bluish/purple flower clusters and arrow-shaped leaves of the common pickerelweed. It blooms all summer and into early fall.

Some more tidbits:

  • It’s rooted to the bottom of the lakes and can grow higher than 4ft
  • Beware: you can get stuck in the matted bed formed by the stems, leaves and flowers
  • You can find pickerel fish nearby, hence its name, sharing the shallow water habitat
  • Muskrats eat the leaves and stems and ducks and deer prefer the seeds


The harbinger of spring in our northern woods are at their finest white.  Don’t be fooled that we have a “pink” species – when past their prime, our trillium will fade to pink before going to seed.

Other fun facts:

  • From latin root “tres” for three and “lilium” for lily
  • 3 green leaves, 3 green sepals, and 3 white petals
  • Common names include “wake robin”
  • blooms when the robins return; “birthroot”
  • roots and rhizomes used to stop haemorrhaging; “snakebite”
  • plant used to make poultice to ease snakebites and skin sores
  • Used to make love potions; a symbol of modest beauty

Wild Leeks

Wild leeks- ramps- are up! You’ll find them in sandy, moist soils- typically on hillsides or near streams. Look for flat, broad, smooth green leaves with a deep purple stem and white bulb underground.

Use a cloth (not plastic) bag and sharp tool (dandelion digger or long knife) to pick them. Beware- the root hairs are stubborn and it’s easy to break off the stems.

Both the leaves and the bulb are edible- they taste like a combo of onions and garlic. Eat them raw, sauté them with olive oil in a pan or preserve them for later. Just blanch for 2-3 minutes then pickle, dry, or freeze them. Enjoy!

Not Just a Weed

On par with dandelions, common plantain is seen as an annoying weed found just about everywhere- your yard, sidewalk cracks, meadows, and forests. The basal leaves (blunted ovals) grow close to the ground and have big ribs/veins. A spike grows up from the middle with tiny greenish-yellow flowers that turn into seeds.

Before you pull it out, know that it has a lot of medicinal uses. For centuries it has been used to treat fevers, ulcers, and kidney problems. Crush up the leaves and put directly on a bee sting or poison ivy rash to relieve swelling and/or itching. The young leaves can be eaten and are high in Vitamin A and C.

Queen Anne’s Lace

Fields and roadsides are sometimes speckled with this delicate but resilient perennial. Queen Anne’s lace, or wild carrot, is in the parsley family. Legend has it that the purple/deep red floret found in the very center is a drop of blood from the Queen’s finger which she pricked while making lace. Both the grated root and the juice from the stem can be eaten. An old woodsman’s trick is to grate the root- that contains carotin- and apply it to burns (with or without mixing it in oil). Eating the purple floret in the center was once thought to cure epilepsy. A great book: Wildflower Folklore by Laura C. Martin.

Seeds Travel

How about a seed hunt? Meander through a nearby meadow or woods and find seed pods on plants. Why do seeds travel? To find better growing conditions- more space, sunlight and/or water- for a better chance of survival. How do seeds travel? By gravity, wind, force, water, or other animals. Often it’s a combination: an acorn drops from an oak tree and is carried off by a squirrel or a maple “helicopter” is blown by the wind into the water and floats away.

  • Flyers: carried by the wind with hairs (milkweed, dandelion, cattail, thistle) or helicopters (maple)
  • Floaters: float in water (water lily, foxglove)
  • Droppers: seeds drop (acorns, apples, pinecones)
  • Hitchhikers: stick to animals with barbs (queen anne’s lace, burdock)

Check out this book with fun and quick nature activities for kids: Nature in a Nutshell for Kids: Over 100 Activities You Can Do in 10 Minutes or Less. Available at Between the Covers bookstore in downtown Harbor Springs

Is It A Pine?

Get to know your conifers as you snowshoe or XC ski about this winter! Here’s a quick and easy taxonomic guide to evergreens:

Are the needles attached in bundles of 2 or more OR individually?

  • 2 or more needles: Pine
  • Individual needles: Fir or Spruce

Are the needles sharp and square OR friendly and flat?

  • Flat and Friendly: Fir (white line on underside)
  • Sharp and Square: Spruce

Some common evergreens in our woods: White Pine (5 needles), Red Pine (2 long needles), Scotch Pine (2 short needles), Balsam Fir, Red Spruce, White Spruce.

Brown Beeches

Ever notice those curled-up, brown leaves hanging from branches all winter long? It’s the American Beech that holds its leaves (as do oaks and chesnuts- all in the Fagaceae family). But botanists don’t know exactly why…for protection from browsing deer or because they are still adapting to northern climates? At any rate, beech leaves add their own simple beauty to our woods all your long.

Weed or Wonder?

Perhaps the most detested weed ever, the dandelion is actually one of the most useful plants on the planet!


  • Leaves: Eat young leaves (before flowering) raw or cooked
  • Roots: Steam like carrots or roast for coffee-like substitute
  • Flowers: Add to muffins and bake, or sautee in a stir fry, or make into wine or beer!


  • Apply white sap from stem to warts.
  • Make a poultice from the flowers for wounds.
  • Use as a wash for fungal infections.
  • Make a tea or tincture and use to treat acne, eczema, anemia, arthritis and rheumatism, edema, high cholesterol and hypertension, obesity, kidney stones, and more!


Before yanking this “weed”, take a 2nd look at this native plant of many uses! You’ll find it in sunny areas-along roadsides, meadows, and even vacant lots-with nodding purplish flowers and leathery leaves 4-8″ long.

  • Habitat: Monarch butterflies will lay their eggs only on Milkweed and Monarch caterpillars can eat only Milkweed-the toxic milt sap sustains it and protects it from predators.
  • Medicinal: Used for centuries as a remedy, the milky white sap treats warts, poison ivy and other skin problems. The roots are poisonous, but boiled extracts have been used for both respiratory and kidney problems.
  • Other Uses: For years, people have boiled the young shoots, flowers or pods as vegetables. In the fall, the silky down from the seed pods was collected as stuffing for mattresses, pillows, and even lifejackets in WWII.


Goldenrod is not to blame for your stuffy nose and sneezing! Its pollen is not airborne, but carried by bees and insects. (Ragweed is the culprit for allergies!) This native plant, with over 85 species, is the symbol for treasure and good fortune and is in the genus Solidago, meaning “to make whole” or “to heal”!

Native Americans used goldenrod in steam baths to relieve pain and in tea to ease colic. After the Boston Tea Party, colonists brewed “Liberty Tea” from goldenrod leaves and blossoms. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth, goldenrod powder was exported to London for its healing powers and sold for much as half crown per pound!

Trout Lily

It’s trout season, and trout lilies are up in the woods, meadows, and roadsides. Look for leaves with conspicuous brown spots and bright yellow nodding blossoms. Also known as fawn lily and adder’s tongue.

  • Edible: Bears eat the bulbs and deer eat the green seed pods. We can eat the leaves! Cook as you would a vegetable salt and/or butter.
  • Medicinal: Trout Lily tea is supposedly a cure for hiccups. Roman soldiers grew it near their camps to use on foot sores and corns.

Invasive Knapweed

Look along any roadside or meadow, and you’ll spot the invasive spotted knapweed in full boom. Lavender blue and thistle-like in looks, the flower sits on a stem that grows 2-3 feet high.

  • Common: Native to England, knapweed comes from the German word knobbe, which means a bump or button. Also known as hardhead, blue bottle, and bachelor’s button, since the bud resembles a kind of button that required no sewing. It was also named corn flower because it grew in grain fields. (In England, “corn” referred to any type of grain.)
  • Folklore: English girls wore knapweed to show they were eligible to marry. It was thought if she hid it under her apron, she could have the bachelor of her choice.
  • Invasive: With over 1,000 seeds per plant that can remain viable in soil for 5 years, knapweed aggressively invades meadows and pastures. The result? Native species, crops, and forage for livestock are crowded out. Infestations are rampant nationwide.

Winter Tree ID

With all of the talk about Emerald Ash Borer, you may look out your window and wonder if you have any ash trees. In winter, the easiest way to ID is by the bark and branch tips:

The bark of mature ash trees is dark grey and deeply furrowed- almost like an elongated diamond. Oaks and maples have rough bark as well, but with much less of a distinct pattern.

The branch tips of ash trees are rounded due to the way the leaves grow. There is a slight taper at the end, but no point. In contrast, oak and maple branches end in sharp points. The silhouettes of the ends of the branches against the sky look quite different too.

Finally, if you have a Mountain Ash, you don’t have any ash at all! They are not true ash trees and do not attract Emerald Ash Borers.

Courtesy of Molly Veling, Timberwolf Tree Care

Meet the Maples

Get to know your northern Michigan neighbors! The 3 most common maple trees in our woods- Sugar, Red, and Striped- are 3 distinct species, but all in the same genus (Acer) and family (Aceraceae). Here’s how to keep the siblings straight!

  • Sugar Maple: Leaf has smooth edges and 3 lobes. Fallen leaves are high in sugar and nitrogen and a favorite of earthworms. Tolerant to shade and wind. Hard wood is used for furniture, cabinents, and flooring (Hard Maple).
  • Red Maple: Leaf has rough edges and 3 lobes. Leaf stem, new leaves, springs seeds, flowers, and autumn leaves are all red. Tolerant to both very dry and very wet habitats (Swamp Maple or Water Maple).
  • Striped Maple: Leaf has fine toothed edge, 3 shallow lobes, can grow to 12-14″ in width, and thus amkes wonderful toilet paper. Prefers shade and can be found along trails! Named for its young bark with vertical green and white stripes (Duckfoot or Moosewood).

More info in Trees of Michigan Field Guide available on Main St. at Between the Covers.