Thursday, March 23, 2023

New Invasive Plants to Watch For

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture has added several new plants to its 2023 noxious weed list. This post focuses primarily on additions to the Prohibited-Eradicate category, but three other categories – Prohibited-Control, Restricted and Specially Regulated – are covered at the end of the post.

Prohibited-Eradicate: The Early-Detection List

The plants in this group either aren’t here yet or are present in low numbers. They're in the early-detection stage, when ideally, they can be found and removed before they become widespread. As the name of the group suggests, these plants should be eradicated by destroying all above- and below-ground parts. Transporting, propagating or selling them is illegal.

Three plants are new to the list this year: Johnsongrass, pale swallow-wort and red hailstone.

Sorghum halepense

Distribution map of Johnsongrass in the Upper Midwest. So far, no counties in Minnesota are highlighted.
USDA NRCS Plants Database (see references). Johnsongrass is
confirmed in counties shaded blue. Lakes and rivers are also
shaded blue.
This perennial grass was introduced to the U.S. in the 1800s as a forage crop. It is now found in many
habitats, including pastures, roadsides, ditches, old fields and wetlands. It reproduces by seeds and rhizomes and can spread aggressively to form dense mats that exclude other plants. It will not tolerate drought or extreme cold, so where winters are severe, Johnsongrass may be a facultative (optional) annual. Stressed plants can produce toxic levels of cyanide.

Johnsongrass grows 8-12 feet tall when flowering. Leaves are alternate, hairless and up to 2 feet long with white midribs. Ligules are 3-4 mm long, membranous and sometimes toothed. Johnsongrass flowers from mid-summer to fall in loose, purplish panicles.

Leaves of Amur silvergrass (Miscanthus sacchariflorus), another introduced plant, also have white midribs, but this plant is shorter at 6-8 feet. Its ligules are a hairy fringe, and its panicles are silvery and silky in fall.

Panel of photos showing features of Johnsongrass for identification.
Clockwise from left: Johnsongrass stem and dense stand by Chris Evans, University of Illinois,; Johnsongrass rhizomes and panicle by Steve Dewey, Utah State University, Bugwood,org. 

Pale swallow-wort
Cynanchum rossicum (aka Vincetoxicum rossicum)

Distribution map of pale swallow wort in the Upper Midwest. So far, only one metropolitan-area county is highlighted.
EDDMapS (see references). Pale swallow-wort is confirmed in
counties shaded green.The plant has also been confirmed in Ontario.
Pale swallow-wort, also called European swallow-wort, is a perennial, twining vine that was imported
to the U.S. in the late 1800s, probably as an ornamental. It thrives in disturbed sites but can grow in a variety of habitats, including fields, pastures and woodland edges and understories. Fast-growing and shade tolerant, it can quickly overrun and outcompete other plants. Because swallow-wort is in the milkweed family, female monarchs will sometimes lay their eggs on it if common milkweed is unavailable. There is concern, however, that swallow-wort is toxic to monarch larvae.

The vine has opposite, shiny, oval or heart-shaped leaves with pointed tips. Stems grow to 7 feet long, wrapping around other plants or structures for support or clambering over the ground. Sap is clear, not white. Clusters of pink to reddish-brown, star-shaped flowers bloom in June and July. Pods are slender, smooth and 2-3 inches long.

Black swallow-wort (Cynanchum nigrum) is also on the Prohibited-Eradicate list. It looks like pale swallow-wort but has dark purple flowers.

Panel of photos showing features of pale swallow wort for identification.
Clockwise from left: Pale swallow-wort vines by Rob Routledge, Sault College,; Pods and seeds by Leslie J. Mehrhoff, University of Connecticut, Leaves and flowers by Rob Routledge, Sault College,


Red hailstone
Thladiantha dubia

Distribution map of red hailstone in the Upper Midwest. Scattered counties in Minnesota are highlighted.
EDDMapS (see references). Red hailstone is confirmed in 
counties shaded green. 
Also called golden creeper or tuber gourd, red hailstone is a perennial vine introduced to North America
in the late 1800s or early 1900s as an ornamental. This adaptable plant grows in abandoned fields, roadsides, gardens, crop fields, railroad corridors and natural areas. Red hailstone can quickly overgrow and smother other plants, including crops.

Vines grow up to 20 feet long with tendrils that grasp other plants or structures for support. Leaves are alternate and heart-shaped. Stems, leaves and petioles (leaf stalks) are hairy. Yellow, tubular flowers bloom from July to September on separate male (pollen-producing) and female (seed-producing) plants.

So far, all plants found in Minnesota are male, so the vines aren’t spreading by seed. Instead, they reproduce vegetatively by small tubers carried along waterways; many of the mapped infestations are along rivers or streams. Where both male and female plants grow, 2-inch oblong fruits may form on female vines. The fruits turn red when mature, thus the name red hailstone.

Before it flowers, red hailstone resembles other tendril-bearing vines in the same family. Wild cucumber (Echinocystis lobata) is a hairless vine with five-lobed leaves and white flowers that bloom in late summer. Bur cucumber (Sicyos angulatus) is hairy but also has five-lobed leaves. Its flowers are white or greenish-white. Neither cucumber vine has red fruits.

Clockwise from left: Red hailstone leaves and infestation by Katy Chayka, Minnesota Wildflowers; Red hailstone flowering plants by Peter Dzuik, Minnesota Wildflowers.


Clockwise from left: Red hailstone flowers by Peter Dzuik, Minnesota Wildflowers; male flower closeup by Katy Chayka, Minnesota Wildflowers; rhizomes and tuber by Katy Chayka, Minnesota Wildflowers.

Other Categories of Noxious Weeds

The MDA defines three other categories of noxious weeds. Two were expanded in 2023.

·         Prohibited-Control: Plants in this category are already established here, so eradication isn’t practical. Management aims at preventing them from reproducing by seed or vegetative organs, such as rhizomes, tubers or stem fragments that can take root. Transportation of all propagating parts is illegal except as allowed by state law, and the plants may not be propagated or sold in the state. Sixteen species are on the list, including three kinds of knotweed featured in a previous post, Are Psyllids the Solution to Invasive Knotweeds? No new species were added in 2023. 

·        Restricted: These plants are widespread in Minnesota. The only practical way to manage them is to restrict their importation, sale and transportation in the state, except as allowed by state law. Two plants are new to the list this year: lesser celandine (Ficaria verna), an aggressive spring ephemeral and garden escapee, and salt cedar (Tamarix ramosissima), also called tamarisk, a shrub first introduced in the West for landscape use, windbreaks and erosion control. 

·        Specially Regulated: These are native or nonnative weeds that are economically valuable but potentially harmful if not controlled. Three plants are new to the list this year. Amur corktree (Phellodendron amurense) now must be removed wherever females have been planted or escaped, or their fruits and seeds must be prevented from spreading. Only male cultivars are legal to sell. Production of Callery pear (Pyrus calleryana) is being phased out over the next three years, after which the tree will be moved to the Restricted category. Tatarian maple (Acer tataricum) and its cultivars can be sold only if a label is attached advising that they should be planted only where the seedlings can be controlled, and ideally at least 100 yards away from any natural area.



EDDMapS. 2023. Early Detection & Distribution Mapping System. The University of Georgia - Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health. Available online at; last accessed March 20, 2023.

USDA, NRCS. 2023. The PLANTS Database (, 03/23/2023). National Plant Data Team, Greensboro, NC USA.


Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

Minnesota Department of Agriculture

USDA Fire Effects Information System

University of Missouri

Pale swallow-wort

Minnesota Department of Agriculture

USDA Forest Service

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

Michigan Department of Natural Resources

Red hailstone

Minnesota Department of Agriculture

University of Minnesota Extension Service

Minnesota Wildflowers

Thursday, March 16, 2023

Phenology and Citizen Science

Catkins of quaking aspen, Populus tremuloides, emerging in mid-March in southern Minnesota.

Although winter is hanging on this year, spring is coming. Signs are clear now: Aspen buds are breaking, maple sap is flowing and sandhill cranes are flying north, to name a few milestones.

These observations are examples of phenology, the study of seasonal changes in plants, animals and other life. The practice of tracking these events crosses many cultures and millions of years. From Ice Age cave paintings to the Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C., people have long recorded nature’s timing to know when to hunt, plant, harvest or look for their favorite species.

This old practice has gained new importance with climate change. Spring-casting maps from the USA National Phenology Network show that first leaf-out and first bloom are happening later this year than average for cloned dogwood and honeysuckles, the plants the NPN monitors to create the maps. So far, that’s especially true in the Southeast, Lower Midwest and Atlantic states up to New York. Data for northern areas are still a few weeks out, but as spring comes, those observations will build out the maps.

This shift toward earlier leaf-out and flowering is part of a world-wide trend attributed to a warmer climate. Potential consequences include increased risk of frost damage to early-emerging plants, an earlier allergy season, and mismatched timing between plants and insect pollinators.

Data collected by phenologists can help us understand this trend, and it also has practical uses. For example, phenoforecasts – predictions of when certain phenophases, or life stage events, will occur – can determine when to control invasive plants, such as buffelgrass, or how to estimate wildfire risk, as with red brome.

Phenology in Minnesota – And How to Help

In Minnesota, volunteer phenologists are observing plants and animals to help with many lines of research. In one project, Pesky Plant Trackers observed wild parsnip (Pastinaca sativa) and Japanese, giant, and bohemian knotweeds (Polygonum species) to learn more about the life cycles of these invasive plants. Although the formal project ended in 2022, observations are still welcome through Nature’s Notebook, the NPN’s data collection site.

Several other Nature’s Notebook campaigns also need volunteers. Here are a few that include the Upper Midwest in their study areas. Visit the campaigns page for more information about these and other projects.

  • Nectar Connectors observe the phenology of food sources for Monarchs and other pollinators.
  • Lilac observers report on cloned or common lilacs to add to decades of phenological data that track climate change.
  • Quercus Quest volunteers watch oak trees to help researchers understand how hybridization affects their ecosystems.

Another resource is Season Watch, a collaboration of the University of Minnesota and Northern Community Radio. Visitors to the website can explore phenology by place, time of year, species and other themes. There are also resources for educators, information about indigenous phenology and links to articles that investigate the connection between climate change and phenology.

Plant watchers play an important role in learning how nature is responding to environmental change and what those responses could mean. It takes only a little training, a desire to see how and when plants grow, and for the time being, some patience to wait out the cold.

Tuesday, March 7, 2023

The Boon of Biological Nitrogen Fixation

A patch of white clover in bloom.
White Clover, Trifolium repens.

White Clover is so common and modest that it’s often ignored. It’s like background noise: always there but barely noticed, at least until it flowers. Beneath its ordinary appearance, though, is an extraordinary ability: It can capture atmospheric nitrogen, N2, and convert it to ammonia, NH3, a first step in making nitrogen usable.

Called biological nitrogen fixation, this process is billions of years old and vital to life as we know it. Although nitrogen gas composes about 78% of the atmosphere by volume, most living things can’t use it. We humans, for example, can’t simply take a deep breath and get the nitrogen we need. We don’t have the molecular machinery to do that.

But some kinds of bacteria do. They possess nitrogenase, a complex enzyme that can break the strong bonds in nitrogen molecules and attach the atoms to hydrogen, making ammonia. Ammonia then goes on to participate in other reactions that make proteins, DNA and other biomolecules. When these compounds decay, or when some of the captured nitrogen leaks into the soil, other plants absorb it. We eat these plants or the animals that graze on them to get our supply of nitrogen. We can’t live without it.

Clover and other legumes house nitrogen-fixing bacteria in nodules on their roots. This symbiosis is of mutual benefit: The plants receive nitrogen from the bacteria, and the bacteria receive energy and carbon compounds from the plants. The nodules also provide a low-oxygen environment for nitrogenase to work. A kind of hemoglobin called leghemoglobin scavenges oxygen that would otherwise disable the enzyme. At the same time, leghemoglobin provides oxygen for cell respiration, the set of reactions that produces the energy to drive nitrogen fixation and other processes.

The exposed roots of white clover showing many small nodules attached.
Nodules on the roots of White Clover hold bacteria that fix    

Legumes are the primary biological nitrogen fixers, but a few plants in other families can do the same. Speckled Alder (Alnus incana), Silver Buffaloberry (Shepherdia argentea) and New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus), for example, are non-legumes that also house nitrogen-fixing bacteria in root nodules. Called actinorhizal plants, they are mostly trees and shrubs from temperate regions. They are adapted to nutrient-poor soils, so some of them have been used to restore land degraded by mining, logging, wildfires or other disturbances.

Other fixers live freely in soil, or they live in close association with roots but not inside nodules. The latter includes bacteria that live in the rhizosphere (the near-root environment) of many grasses, including wheat and corn. Some researchers are trying to develop nodulating cereal crops that capture more of the nitrogen they need naturally instead of absorbing it from manufactured, energy-intensive fertilizer, which now supplies most of the nitrogen needed for agriculture. If they succeed, it could be part of the answer to mitigating climate change – and to feeding a hungry world.


Wagner, S. C. (2011) Biological Nitrogen Fixation. Nature Education Knowledge 3(10):15

Bernhard, A. (2010) The Nitrogen Cycle: Processes, Players, and Human Impact. Nature Education Knowledge 3(10):25

Diagne, N., Arumugam, K., Ngom, M., Nambiar-Veetil, M., Franche, C., Narayanan, K. K., & Laplaze, L. (2013). Use of Frankia and actinorhizal plants for degraded lands reclamation. BioMed Research International, 2013, 948258.

Bakum, J. (2022) Biological nitrogen fixation and prospects for ecological intensification in cereal-based cropping systems. International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT). 

Moonseed Vine: A Poisonous Grapevine Look-Alike

Moonseed vine, Menispermum canadense , in early fall. Although most of its leaves have now fallen, it can still be identified -- and avoided...