Robert W. Freckmann Herbarium
University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point

Vascular Plants

Plants of Wisconsin

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Natural Communities:
Upland Forests


Click on community name for photo gallery.

Boreal forest
In Wisconsin, mature stands of this forest community are dominated by white spruce (Picea glauca) and balsam-fir (Abies balsamea), often mixed with white birch (Betula papyrifera), white cedar (Thuja occidentalis), white pine (Pinus strobus), balsam-poplar (Populus balsamifera) and quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides). Mountain-ash (Sorbus spp.) may also be present. Common understory herbs are large-leaved aster (Aster macrophyllus), bluebead lily (Clintonia borealis), Canada mayflower (Maianthemum canadense), wild sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis), and bunchberry (Cornus canadensis). Most Wisconsin stands are associated with the Great Lakes, especially the clay plain of Lake Superior, and the eastern side of the northern Door Peninsula on Lake Michigan. Of potential interest from the perspectives of vegetation classification and restoration, white pine had the highest importance value of any tree in the Lake Superior region, as recorded during the original land survey of the mid-1800’s.

Central sands pine-oak forest
This forest community is associated with the Central Sands ecoregion on dry to dry-mesic sites with acid sandy soils. The dominants are white and red pines (Pinus strobus and P. resinosa), oaks (Quercus alba, Q. rubra, and Q. velutina), and on dry-mesic sites, red maple (Acer rubrum). The understory is typically depauperate consisting primarily of huckleberry (Gaylussacia baccata), early blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium), bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinium), wood anemone (Anemone quinquefolia) and Penn sedge (Carex pensylvanica). Jack pine (Pinus banksiana) is sometimes co-dominant on the driest sites (jack pine – black / Hills oak dominated stands maybe split out in the future).

Forested ridge and swale
This is a complex of semi- to fully-stabilized, often forested beach / dune ridges alternating with wet open to forested swales, found on the shores of the Great Lakes but best-developed along Lake Michigan. Both parallel the coast and offer exceptionally complex and diverse habitats for wetland, upland, and Great Lakes shoreline plants. Ridges may support assemblages similar to boreal, northern mesic, or northern dry-mesic forests. Water depth is a controlling factor in the swales, and the vegetation may run the gamut from open (emergent marsh, fen, or sedge meadow), shrub (bog birch, alder), or forested wetlands (often white cedar, black ash are prominent in these).

Hemlock relict
These are isolated hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) stands occuring in deep, moist ravines or on cool, north or east facing slopes in southwestern Wisconsin. Associated trees include white pine (Pinus strobus), and yellow birch (Betula allegheniensis). The groundlayer includes herbaceous species with northern affinities such as shining clubmoss (Lycopodium lucidulum), bluebead lily (Clintonia borealis), canada mayflower (Maianthemum canadense), and woodferns (Dryopteris spp). Cambrian sandstone cliffs are usually nearby and often prominent.

Mesic cedar forest
This is a rare upland forest community of mesic sites in northern Wisconsin, characterized by white cedar (Thuja occidentalis) and various associates including hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), white spruce (Abies balsamea), yellow birch (Betula alleghanensis), and white pine (Pinus strobus). The herb layer may contain canada mayflower (Maianthemum canadense), twinflower (Linnaea borealis), clubmosses (Lycopodium spp.), and others. More information is needed on this community type.

Mesic floodplain terrace
These are deciduous forests developed on alluvial terraces along rich, infrequently flooding (or flooding only for a very short period) rivers draining into Lake Superior. The dominant trees are usually sugar maple (Acer saccharum), basswood (Tilia americana), and sometimes ashes (Fraxinus spp.). There is a diverse spring ephemeral flora (which in Wisconsin includes many southern species at their northern range limits), but by late spring, these may be overtopped by dense stands of ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) and wood-nettle (Laportea canadensis).

Northern dry forest
This forest community occurs on nutrient-poor sites with excessively drained sandy or rocky soils. The primary historic disturbance regime was catastrophic fire at intervals of decades to approximately a century. Dominant trees of mature stands include jack and red pines (Pinus banksiana and P. resinosa) and/or Hill's oak (Quercus ellipsoidalis) . Large acreages of this forest type were cut and burned during the catastrophic logging of the late 19th and early 20th century. Much of this land was then colonized by white birch (Betula papyrifera) and/or quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides, or converted to pine plantations starting in the 1920s. Common understory shrubs are hazelnuts (Corylus spp.), early blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium and brambles(Rubus spp.); common herbs include bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinium), starflower (Trientalis borealis), barren-strawberry (Waldsteinia fragarioides), cow-wheat (Melampyrum lineare), trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens), and members of the shinleaf family (Chimaphila umbellata, Pyrola spp.). Vast acreages of open "barrens" were also planted to pine, or naturally succeeded to densely stocked “dry” forests.

Northern dry-mesic forest
In this forest community, mature stands are dominated by white and red pines (Pinus strobus and P. resinosa), sometimes mixed with red oak (Quercus rubra) and red maple (Acer rubrum). Common understory shrubs are hazelnuts (Corylus spp.), blueberries (Vaccinium angustifolium and V. myrtilloides), wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens), partridge-berry (Mitchella repens); among the dominant herbs are wild sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis), Canada mayflower (Maianthemum canadense), and cow-wheat (Melampyrum lineare). Stands usually occur on sandy loams, sands or sometimes rocky soils.

Northern mesic forest
This forest complex covered the largest acreage of any Wisconsin vegetation type prior to European settlement. Sugar maple (Acer saccharum) is dominant or co-dominant in most stands, while hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) was the second most important species, sometimes occurring in nearly pure stands with white pine (Pinus strobus). Beech (Fagus grandifolia) can be a co-dominant with sugar maple in the counties near Lake Michigan. Other important tree species were yellow birch (Betula allegheniensis), basswood (Tilia americana), and white ash (Fraxinus americana). The groundlayer varies from sparse and species poor (especially in hemlock stands) with woodferns (especially Dryopteris intermedia), bluebead lily (Clintonia borealis), clubmosses (Lycopodium spp.), and Canada mayflower (Maianthemum canadense) prevalent, to lush and species-rich with fine spring ephemeral displays. After old-growth stands were cut, trees such as quaking and bigtoothed aspens (Populus tremuloides and P. grandidentata), white birch (Betula papyrifera), and red maple (Acer rubrum) became and still are important in many second-growth Northern Mesic Forests. Several distinct associations within this complex warrant recognition as communities, and draft abstracts of these are currently undergoing review.

Pine relict
These isolated stands of white pine (Pinus strobus) and red pine (P. resinosa) or, less commonly, jack pine (P.banksiana), that occur on sandstone outcrops or in thin soils over sandstone in the Driftless Area of southwestern Wisconsin, have historically been referred to as relicts. The understories often contain species with northern affinities such as blueberries (Vaccinium spp.), huckleberry (Gaylussacia baccata), wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens), pipsissewa (Chimaphila umbellata), and partridge-berry (Mitchella repens), sometimes mixed with herbs typically found in southern Wisconsin’s oak forests and prairies.

Southern dry forest
Oaks are the dominant species in this upland forest community of dry sites. White oak (Quercus alba) and black oak (Quercus velutina) are dominant, often with admixtures of red and bur oaks (Q. rubra and Q. macrocarpa) and black cherry (Prunus serotina). In the well developed shrub layer, brambles (Rubus spp.), gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa), and American hazelnut (Corylus americana) are common. Frequent herbaceous species are wild geranium (Geranium maculatum), false Solomon's-seal (Smilacina racemosa), hog-peanut (Amphicarpaea bracteata), and woodland sunflower (Helianthus strumosus).

Southern dry-mesic forest
Red oak (Quercus rubra) is a common dominant tree of this upland forest community type. White oak (Q. alba), basswood (Tilia americana), sugar and red maples (Acer saccharum and A. rubrum), and white ash (Fraxinus americana) are also important. The herbaceous understory flora is diverse and includes many species listed under Southern Dry Forest plus jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum), enchanter's-nightshade (Circaea lutetiana), large-flowered bellwort (Uvularia grandiflora), interrupted fern (Osmunda claytoniana), Lady Fern (Athyrium Filix-femina), tick-trefoils (Desmodium glutinosum and D. nudiflorum), and hog peanut (Amphicarpa bracteata) . To the detriment of the oaks, mesophytic tree species are becoming increasingly important under current management practices and fire suppression policies.

Southern mesic forest
This upland forest community occurs on rich, well-drained soils. The dominant tree species is sugar maple (Acer saccharum), but basswood (Tilia americana) and (near Lake Michigan) beech (Fagus grandifolia) may be co-dominant. Many other trees are found in these forests, including those of the walnut family (Juglandaceae). The understory is typically open (sometimes brushy with species of gooseberry (Ribes) if there is a past history of grazing) and supports fine spring ephemeral displays. Characteristic herbs are spring-beauty (Claytonia virginica), trout-lilies (Erythronium spp.), trilliums (Trillium spp.), violets (Viola spp.), bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides), mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum), and Virginia waterleaf (Hydrophyllum virginianum).


Offsite resources:
Virginia Kline's collection of the Vegetation of Wisconsin
Michigan Natural Features Inventory Community descriptions

Vascular Plants

Plants of Wisconsin

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