Twigs and Branches

A web of present and past events


These short articles are written to highlight connections of the plants, history and lore of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden with different time frames or outside connections. A web of intersections.


Mullein Plant

July 23, 2021: Eloise and Monet
Both Eloise Butler and Claude Monet were contemporaries; both wanted a plant garden and a water garden; both achieved what they wanted and both accommodated what many would call a weed. In 1911 Eloise Butler wrote “I sometimes think, if I have any mission in this world, it is to teach the decorative value of common weeds. A weed is simply a plant out of place.”

One example out of many was the use of Common Mullein, Verbascum thapsus, now in full bloom in our area. It is an indigenous inhabitant of our wild flower garden and Monet used it at Giverny, to underplant the clematis arches bringing it in to make use of the tall stalks and color, then he left them to reseed where they fell. Other shared common plants were Water Smartweed, Virginia Creeper, Dame’s Rocket and Yellow Flag. Like Eloise he preferred a more wild look when he lived there. For more of this story use this link.


Below: The photo shows Monet at Giverny in 1924, photo courtesy Sygma, London


Fireweed plant

July 5, 2021: It would not grow for her!
Fireweed, or Great Willow Herb (Chamerion angustifolium), was an elusive plant for Eloise Butler - she told her friend Gertrude Cram that nothing would ever induce it to grow for her. She didn’t know where to find it locally so she bought some from Massachusetts in 1907 but the wrong plant was sent. On her return to Minneapolis from the east coast in August 1908, her train broke down near Mackay Ontario and while waiting for repairs she spotted lots of it out the train car window and promptly filled a suitcase with it. She later found a source beyond White Bear Lake.

Fireweed is an international plant, found in Europe and North America. It was used for tea in England and Russia, for salads in many places, and for medicinal purposes by the Minnesota Ojibwa.

The origin of the name has to do with the mistaken belief that it primarily colonized recently burnt-over sites, but some other plants do likewise and they also picked up that common name. In reality any recent bare spot is game for this plant. Mrs. Grieve (A Modern Herbal, 1931) notes that the plant would spring up in a town, self-sown, on waste ground recently cleared of centuries old buildings. She specifically mentions areas in London around Aldwych and Westminster where old buildings were torn down and the ground remained in a wasted state for some time, though no one could explain where the seeds came from.

Paleo-archaeologist Mary Leakey wrote that upon returning to London from Kenya after the Blitz and the War [1946] there were unfilled craters and uncleared rubble everywhere. "Later in the year we saw some of the devastated areas in the city become pink with flowering spikes of willow-herb, which had colonized the open spaces and was by now well established and thriving there.”

Fireweed flowers

June 21, 2021: Ready for a new Oak species?
During the next 50 years the University of Minnesota Department of Forest Resources expects that Minnesota’s climate range will move northward another 150 to 250 miles, compared to 70 miles in the last 50 years, allowing species now found in Iowa to reach the Twin Cities and beyond. This would allow the Chinkapin (or Yellow) Oak (Quercus muehlenbergii) to once again become established in the Wild Flower Garden where it once grew after Eloise Butler imported it in 1922 as a tree she thought would grow there. At that time, but less so today, winter hardiness was an issue. Today some specimens have been growing in the Twin Cities for 60 to 70 years.

Chinkapin Oak is one of the most widespread oaks in temperate North America (geographically, not in density). They are usually 2 to 3 feet in diameter but the national champion is 7.6 feet in diameter. Uniquely, the leaves, which lack a sinus, grown only in a cluster at the end of new twig growth. The acorn is fairly large and matures the first year like all species in the White Oak lineage.


Black Medick plantJune 11, 2021: It’s under your foot, found around the world, and do you see it?
I’m referring to a legume of the Pea Family named Black Medick (Medicago lupulina). You have probably stepped on the plant in and around lawns. It is usually spreading on the ground with an erect flowering stem (technically - “procumbent”). It looks like a small clover plant with a leaf split into 3 leaflets. The flower head is tiny (check the photo of one resting against a finger) but the head has up to 50 yellow flowers, each only 2-3 mm in size. Clover plants have much larger heads and in our area are white or red.

Black medick flower head

You could confuse the leaves with another small plant - Yellow Woodsorrel, but not when in flower. It is often in lawn areas or around the edges, usually because the lawn is deficient in nitrogen, allowing adventive plants like this to gain a toehold. It can be an annual or a biennial and if a second year plant it develops a taproot quite long for a plant its size, which makes it difficult to remove. Since it fixes nitrogen some would consider leaving it to improve the soil. It flowers from May forward.

Like many adventive legumes and grasses Black Medick was came to North America with grazing animal feed. It is in the same genus as Alfalfa and Ada George wrote in 1914 that unscrupulous seed dealers would adulterate more expensive Alfalfa seed with it. The plant has been in Eloise Butler since the upland was added in 1944. If you wonder about the strange common name and the species name ‘lupulina’ which means wolf-like, see the explantation on the website page for the plant.


May 22, 2021: Memories of Eloise Butler could have been much different:
A pivotable moment: The spring of 1911 was the last for Eloise Butler to teach in the Minneapolis School System. Since its founding in 1907 the wild botanic garden in Glenwood Park had been in the care of the high school science teachers, Eloise being as one writer put it in 1910 “practically the mother of the garden.” There was no appointed position of control and there was no guarantee that the plot would continue to be available nor were those conditions being addressed. Thus, on retirement Eloise was planning to return to the East Coast where her sister Cora lived unless some permanent arrangement could be made for her to care for the Garden, to be paid, and for the the space to be made a permanent designated wild garden. If not for what followed next, the history we know would not have happened.

On April 5, 1911 the Garden Club of Minneapolis, meeting in the mayor's reception room at city hall, passed a resolution recommending to the Park Board that Eloise Butler be appointed curator of the Garden and that the space be set aside as a permanent wild flower garden. They were joined on June 5th by the Woman's Club in presenting a petition to the Park Board signed by several hundred persons. They stated that Miss Butler was prepared to begin introducing a large number of plants to the space to make it representative of the state. The Board was not opposed but required it to go through the committee process.

On June 9 both clubs put the proposal before the Finance and Improvement Committee. The committee approved as did the full Park Board when it met, but the budget lacked funds for a salary, so her salary was to be paid by the Woman's Club until 1912 with the understanding that the new position of curation was to be permanent as was the space. In February of 1912, the Park Board took over the payment of $60 per month for seven months each year as previously agreed and thus a permanent garden was established and Eloise Butler remained in Minneapolis to make history. If not for this intervention the garden may have suffered the same fate as the earlier wild garden of Dr. George Upram Hay in New Brunswick that Eloise had visited in 1908, but which had no provision for its continuance and now no trace of it can be found. (reviewed here in June 2020).

Below: A collage of the newspaper headlines about these events. Full text at this link.

collage of newspaper headlines

May 9, 2021: A cautionary word to horses about Box Elder:
Now that we are beyond the maple syrup season we are into maple seed season.Maple trees produce seeds contained in a paired winged structure called a “samara” or a ‘key.” These are usually harmless but for our native maple, the Box Elder, it has recently been documented right here in Minnesota that ingestion of Box Elder seeds by horses in pastures is the previously unknown cause of a deadly muscle disease which is part of a disease complex called seasonal pasture myopathy (SPM). Under research is the question of how much material is a deadly dose. This research was reported by the University of Minnesota Equine Center in the Nov. 2012 issue of Equine Veterinary Journal. The University reports in 2021 that About 75 to 95 percent of horses affected by this disease die.

It becomes a problem for pastured horses that have insufficient food and begin to eat available plant material, of which Box Elder seeds can be amply and are available all season as they do not drop from the tree until fall and winter. Autumn is the worst season as other forage is typically less available. For years it was unknown what caused these death rates. The toxin responsible for SPM is hypoglycin A, which is found in the boxelder seeds. The chemical is found in about 270 species world wide but unlike Box Elder, in quantities not usually sufficient to cause disease. The Soapberry Family, of which the maples are members, seems to have a number of these plants. The same problem occurs in Europe, but from a different European maple species.

Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine states that "When one horse becomes affected, herd mates are also at risk. However, not every horse pastured near box elder seeds will develop SPM. The reason behind this is just one of the mysteries about SPM that remains to be solved.”

The Box Elder one of the few maples that retain the samaras all season of those that do, it can be identified as our only maple with divided leaves. Plant information sheet.

box elder key
Box elder samara maturing.
Box elder leaf
Box elder leaves.

Selections published January - April, 2021.

Selections published in 2020