What a delight to practice the art and science of horticulture in the Northwoods of Wisconsin! Indeed the backdrop of boreal and northern hardwood forest is a tempting pallet to create naturalized botanical spaces with cool green ferns and shade loving perennials planted amongst clumps of white birch. OH, but explore more broadly in northwest Wisconsin and you will discover a very special Northwoods landscape: the Barrens of the Northwest Sands.
The Northwest Sands Ecological Landscape stretches from the Bayfield Peninsula southwest through Douglas County to Grantsburg of western Burnett County. Appearing to be “barren” due to the scarcity of trees, the ecosystem is brimming with a diversity of over 425 species of plants and animals. Formed in the sands of the Bayfield sandstone and the St. Croix River glacial spillway, the barrens are dry and fire dependent. The native plants that grow here have evolved to thrive in a cycle of disturbance. Once one of Wisconsin’s most characteristic habitats covering 4-6 million acres, changing land use and modern fire control have reduced the total to ~ 50,000 acres. The barrens of the Northwest Sands in Wisconsin are considered “globally significant” by restoration ecologists and natural resource agencies worldwide.
Douglas County UW-Extension
The terrain is rolling, dotted with jack pine and oak “grubs”, short stocky white and burr oaks with large root systems having sustained decades of fire. Spring- and surface-fed ponds are ringed with steeple bush and leather leaf. Characteristic of the uplands are dogbane, blueberry, sweet fern and Juneberry. The wildflowers provide a riot of color throughout the year. In spring the Bird’s foot violet, Viola pedata, and hoary puccoon, Lithospermum canescens, and June grass, Koeleria macrantha, beckon the visitor after a long winter of browns and greys. The barren landscapes of Burnett and Washburn County host the wild blue lupine, Lupinus perennis, blooming at the same time as prairie phlox, Phlox pilosa, and pearly everlasting, Anaphalis margaritacea. With summer comes the wood lily, Lilium philadelphicum, and the butterfly milkweed, Asclepias tuberosa, both competing for the most stunning display of bright orange color you will ever see. The waving grasses dominate in late summer with big bluestem, Andropogon gerardi, little bluestem, Schizachyrium scoparium, Indian grass, Sorghastrum nutans, and the shorter poverty oat grass, Danthonia spicata. Prairie cordgrass, Spartina pectinata, can be found in the moist soils along the wetlands or ponds. As fall approaches, displays of asters, including silky and azure asters, Aster sericeus and A. oolentangiensis, attract pollinators on their winter migration.
Of course, with such plant diversity, insects, birds, and animals are just as diverse. The federally endangered Karner Blue Butterfly finds a stable home amongst the barrens. The Kirtland’s Warbler, also federally listed, has found a home amongst the jack pines of the Northwest Sands. The upland sandpiper and the brown thrasher, both species of greatest conservation need can be encountered here. Do not miss the nightjar and whip-or-will migration in August, or the sharp-tailed grouse courtship dance in May. These displays of nature are just as much a part of Wisconsin heritage as a polka mass, wild rice harvest or a Packer win!
There are many ways to experience the barrens. Crex Meadows Wildlife Area in Burnett County, Namekagon Barrens in Burnett and Washburn County, and the Bird Sanctuary of the Douglas County Wildlife Area all have friends groups to assist you in learning about the individual public properties. Moquah Barrens in Bayfield County is located within the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. Auto tours are available or being developed for all of these properties. Biking and hiking are popular ways to experience the beauty of this wild land.
As for me, I spend my time at the Bird Sanctuary just south of Solon Springs, tending a native plant garden developed in partnership with the Friends of the Bird Sanctuary and the late Master Gardener Volunteer Wendy Little. Her dream was to introduce the plants to the people prior to exploring them in the more random natural arrangement of the barrens. Stop by and see for yourself. The more familiar we are with our Wisconsin natural places the more astute we become as Wisconsin horticulturalists.